Science Fiction Studies


#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Scott Bukatman

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 emerges.

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 him" (59).

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 media" (§11:135).

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. (§12:143)

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 ontological transformation.

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 "border war":

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. (12)

"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 ubiquity.

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 passing:

'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" (§3:68).

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" (§4:122).

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 human definition.

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 objects.

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" [18]). 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. (20)

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 recorder.

'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" (59).

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/

On warm/Leatherette.

The song was later recorded by androgynous disco queen Grace Jones.

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 users.

6. Page references for these stories are to Sterling's Crystal Express.

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. 130-36.

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. 17-25.

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): 65-107.

—————. 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): 237-244.

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. London, 1990.

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 House, 1989.

Wolfe, Bernard. Limbo. 1952. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987. Same pagination as in the undated Ace A-3 edition.

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