#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 =
Alternate Presents: The Ambivalent Historicism of Pattern Recognition
“These days … I find myself thinking in more historical terms.” ─William Gibson, No Maps for These Territories §19
“History’s trick—the philosophical concept of history—was to imagine that a single substance could be both lost and found again in time.” ─ Sylviane Agacinski 16
In several important ways, William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition participates in the conflicted but pedigreed genre of alternative (or alternate) history, a subgenre with a rich and powerful tradition within sf. Famous examples include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), Keith Roberts’s Pavane (1968), Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (1976), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), a sprawling account of world history premised on the notion that Europe’s worst pandemic, the Black Plague of the 1340s, killed more than nine-tenths of the continent’s population. One also thinks of such literary successes as E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (1997), and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). Whether the historical differences are macro- or micro-, each of these books re-imagines the past as a means for re-imagining the present.
Sf commonly contends that its thought-experiments transcend mere entertainments by serving to interrogate the present. Certainly this conceit marks novels set in the future, however distant in time or space: in Schild’s Ladder (2001), Greg Egan’s depiction of sexual polymorphism is not prophecy about the future or a particular illustration of how shockingly different human life might be under the aegis of different technologies. It is a vigorous critique of how, in the empirical present, in the reader’s moment of critical engagement with this text, our culture still fearfully represses rather than celebrates alterity. Neal Stephenson told Locus that “There is a particular science fiction approach to the world, and it has nothing to do with the future” (“Cryptomancer” 6); “[it is] an awareness that things could have been different, that this is one of many possible worlds, that if you came to this world from some other planet, this would be a science fiction world” (6). Or, as Ursula K. Le Guin remarks in her 1976 preface to The Left Hand of Darkness—“science fiction isn’t about the future” (xv) because “The future, in fiction, is a metaphor” (xvi). Le Guin concludes “rather solemnly” (xvi) with a phrase subsequently repeated by her ethnographic envoy Genly Ai: literature’s “truth is a matter of the imagination” (1).
Alternative history is a privileged example of making truth a matter of the imagination. Most attempts to delimit the genre revolve around a loose definition, followed by the enumeration of some common tropes and topoi. For Andy Duncan, for example, alternative history simply is “a work of fiction where history as we know it is changed for dramatic and often ironic effect” (209). (The deceptively simple qualifier—“as we know it”—will turn out to be the fundamental crux.) Duncan then catalogs the typical variants: a single “moment of [historical] divergence” (210) that has enormous consequences; time-travel, time-slip, or time-loop stories (213-15). Duncan does not mention “alternative world” stories, though umbrella definitions often attempt to group such stories together. Such stories can be political (211) or playful (212). The genre poses two special problems, however, the first of which Duncan names this way: “The theme of many alternate histories is neatly summarized in a Gregory Benford story title: ‘We Could do Worse.’ However unsettling these visions, their effect is reassuring; they make readers feel better about their own time line, however troubled it may be” (216). A second problem is defined by John Clute: “The danger in [treating history as a legitimate field for thought experiments] is that of turning the past into a vast vaudeville, and its significant actors into mummers capable of donning any role” (“Science Fiction” 73-74). Indeed, logicians like to point out that from petitio principii anything follows.
Yet alternative history has become a vigorous, serious subgenre, for, as Steffan Hantke rightly points out, “alternative histories are narrative ‘difference engines’” (249)—they calculate possibilities and continuously fork narratives of past and future, opening the present to critical thought in a way that few works of mainstream realism can. Even in mainstream historical scholarship, speculative or “counterfactual” discourse now has considerable potency. In fact, the sf subgenre was preceded by the thought experiments of academic historians. Paul Kincaid asserts these began in 1907, with G.M. Trevelyan’s “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo” (21), though certainly this discourse had its own origin in the philosophical discussion of conditionals during the nineteenth century.1 Academic historians revived the practice in the 1960s, and it has become quite popular today. In 1999, Niall Ferguson published an edited collection of such accounts, and there are many other possible examples. Sometimes called “virtual history,” counterfactual history asks “what if?” questions about crucial moments of the past and then speculates on possible outcomes. As Gary Saul Morson says, however,
The problem with what-if history is that there is only one moment of eventness, which is singularly odd, for there is nothing unique about the moment chosen. If contingencies ramify and if choices constantly present themselves, then there are no straight lines to draw. Of course, one might imagine, in great richness, the evolving fictive situation, and specify moments of choice, and then follow one of them, again and again, thus repeating the initial what-if. But then one would have something resembling a novel. (69, emphasis in original)
Indeed, the advantage of alternative-history fiction over virtual-history non-fiction is precisely the rich web of contingent and necessary speculation, the transformation of a single point of essential difference into a fractal rhizome of networked forks and possibilities. And perhaps the central difference between science fiction and any other kind of fiction is the explicit foregrounding of its “what if?” formulations, what Samuel Delany called sf’s “subjunctivity” (31-32).
Gibson himself co-wrote with Bruce Sterling The Difference Engine (1991), which rewrites the British 1850s by following Charles Babbage’s development of a true “difference engine”—the sort of early computer that would not be, in our shared reality, developed until some ninety years later.2 At first glance, however, Pattern Recognition does not seem part of this subgenre. (Or perhaps even the genre: in a review in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe called the novel an example of “non-SF SF.”) Among other things, it is ostensibly set in “the present,” the summer of 2002, which given the exigencies of publishing is as close to a “present” as a novel can be set: “uncorrected” galleys were circulated in the fall of 2002, with the book’s “official” release coming in the spring of 2003.3 Both the publisher’s promotional materials and book reviewers repeatedly declared that the novel was set “in” the present. Many different writers in many different venues greeted Pattern Recognition with one or another cognate of the phrase—examples include Candas Jane Dorsey (“in this novel Gibson has brought his arsenal of allegory to bear on the world we really do all share, the present day”) and Cory Doctorow (“the future is here”) on their websites. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Lisa Zeidner said “Can anything transcend its time now? Or is any novel about our tumultuous era bound to be a blip on the radar screen—the equivalent of 20 seconds of stray footage on the net?” (7c).
In a 2003 op-ed piece on George Orwell for The New York Times, Gibson himself remarked something similar, though he extended the comment to the whole of his corpus: “I knew that [Neuromancer] wasn’t really about the future, just as 1984 hadn’t been about the future, but about 1948. I had relatively little anxiety about eventually finding myself in a society of the sort Orwell imagined. I had other fish to fry, in terms of history and anxiety, and indeed I still do” (“The Road to Oceana”). An interview posted on his own website is even more explicit: in answer to the query “Why did you decide to set this novel in the present, unlike your previous novels?” Gibson replies that “I’ve been threatening to do it for a while. The last three books feel to me more like ‘alternate presents’ than imaginary futures. Science fiction is always, really, about the period it’s written in, though most people don’t seem to understand that.”
Both thematically and structurally, Pattern Recognition is very much about presentness, especially how Cayce wants to be in the now, and how some initial experience of each footage fragment’s authenticity puts Cayce fully in the now: “she must be present for the new segment” (22; my emphasis). Curiously, when Cayce gives herself to this present, she denotes it not as the “real” but “the dream” (23, 255)—something possessing a “participation mystique” (255) of immediacy, mystery—what Clute calls “its dark oneiric intensity” (“Case” 405). For Cayce, what makes each scrap of footage authentic is a negative, what it lacks, precisely opposing commercial products, as if each had no cause or material process before appearing fully-formed on the web: “There is a lack of evidence, an absence of stylistic clues, that Cayce understands to be utterly masterful” (23).
Yet, however iconic its mimesis, the footage remains rendered, edited, coded, framed, then replayed. Within the footage, the ineffable presentness is made possible only by invoking “timelessness” (23)—for Cayce, this constitutes the very “mystery” (47) of the footage, the “mystery of [its] origin.” To call it “untrammeled by even the most basic conventions of the day” (23) says, simultaneously, that it is unmarked by logos and other signs of commodification (and hence aesthetically pure, authentic), but also that it cannot be situated in the now, any now, and hence properly signifies no specific moment in history except an event experienced in the spectator’s now, framed only by the conventions the viewer superimposes. (In this, it resembles literature, though in that case substitute reader for viewer.) Throughout, the novel will privilege how uncommon, how brief, how inaccessible, how narrow, and how magnificent that “now” is, a point Clute made central to his review: we live in “a world lacking coherent ‘nows’ to continue from” (403), for in Clute’s view this explains why Gibson sets the novel not in the future but the present. Not only is the future unavailable, but even the “now” is deferred.4 Gibson makes this point both in his novels and in statements concerning his aesthetic project: “I think we live in an incomprehensible present, and what I’m actually trying to do is illuminate the moment—and make the moment accessible. I’m not trying to explain the moment—I’m just trying to make it accessible” (No Maps §17). Similarly, such claims can be extended to the whole philosophy of history. In History and Theory, Eelco Runia recently proposed in a similar vein that accessing “presence” is precisely what historiography desires—just as Gibson desires accessible presence for the present.
The problem for sf—for Gibson, indeed for all works of art—is, then, that access to a present is constantly deferred or fractured into readerly alternatives. Not only are there too many contingent variables between the moment of publication and the moment of reading, but a fiction that is entirely about the present would unfold entirely and only in the reader’s present. It would resemble Gibson’s first version of “Agrippa,” a poem about a lost father, a text that once read would forever again be technically inaccessible and subsequently held only by individual memory. The problem concerns not only the now, but whose now.
Throughout Pattern Recognition, the difficulty of capturing the presence of the present connects, sometimes by theme but primarily by contiguous juxtaposition and paralogy, to the problem of absence—the missing father. For Cayce, that oxymoronic absent presence is Wingrove Pollard, who disappeared on 9/11 but hovers around Cayce’s life and thought like Hamlet’s ghost. Win looks like “the younger William S. Burroughs” (188), one of Gibson’s own literary fathers. The search to make present the unknown maker and the missing father intertwine; separating one from another will not be easy: “Cayce’s missing person, it had developed, was missing in some additional and specially problematic way” (188). When Cayce finally reads the report given her by Wiktor Marchwinska-Wyrwal, she embraces the dialectic of absence and presence: “His very missingness becoming, somehow, him” (351). Until the final moments of the text, Cayce’s own soul is delayed, lagged, missing.
The present is, like each segment of the footage, “profoundly liminal. A threshold state” (22). And, like the footage, it has yet to be assembled into a coherent whole, a coherent now. But also like Cayce’s panic reaction to Bibendum or Tommy Hilfiger, to exist fully in the now means to exist without past or future, sliding laterally; the present, perhaps, is the nightmare we are trying to escape. This double orientation of the present—the state we are trying to capture, the state we are trying to evade—constitutes the first of the novel’s profound ambivalences. In a well-known essay, Jacques Derrida named that differential thread “différance”: “One can expose only that which at a certain moment can become present, manifest, that which can be shown, presented as something present, a being-present in its truth, in the truth of a present of the presence of the present” (5-6).
We need, then, to think through what precisely alternative-present history does, not merely name its superficial surface or detail historical differences. These thought experiments about the past are attempts to rethink the present: they manifest our present as the merest contingency, the result of “countless random impacts” (Neuromancer 9) producing conditions that could be radically altered had the smallest difference occurred in the past. In Pattern Recognition, a novel set in the “present,” presence is endlessly deferred, inexorably already the missing past or an impossible dream of the future—or an alternative historical present. This missing present, like the missing father, presents an especially difficult problematic, bound up with various unassembled fragments we can name: not future, present, and past but conditionals, counterfactuals, and history.
Conditionals, Counterfactuals, and History. Given that alternative history functions through the use of counterfactual conditionals, we should pause for a moment to think about conditionals, which present a philosophical problem that far exceeds a “fussy little grammatical exercise” (13), as Nelson Goodman, one of the most influential American philosophers to consider the problem, once remarked. Goodman argued that the problem had wide-ranging applications and non-trivial consequences: “the name ‘problem of counterfactuals’ is misleading, because the problem is independent of the form in which a given statement happens to be expressed…[it] is equally a problem of factual conditionals” (14). Goodman’s account includes his famous “The New Riddle of Induction” (63-86), which outlines fundamental problems in inductive reasoning, the very method through which, post-Enlightenment thought has maintained, new knowledge is produced and received wisdom is confirmed (or not). There are conditionals that do not depend on “if,” and some that do not provide a predicate that begins with “then.” Rather than a fuzzy little exercise, the intellectual stakes are large.5
In A Philosophical Guide to Conditionals (2003), a recent and comprehensive overview of the problem, Jonathan Bennett provides an exhaustive index and a provisional taxonomy.6 Because there are so many kinds and instances of conditionals, Bennett begins by wondering if a unified definition (“a Y-shaped analysis with a thick, long stem” ) can be provided. Initially skeptical, after 23 rigorous chapters and 370 pages, he concludes that they cannot be unified even though they have a deep resemblance, especially in common usage within natural languages. Further, existing attempts at unification cause a loss to our “understanding” (369). For our non-technical purposes, it may be best to stay with the elementary articulation of the problem. He begins by naming two principle “species”: indicative conditionals and subjunctive conditionals (7-12). Indicative conditionals declare a “did-did” relation. Here’s an example: “if Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet, then Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, did.” Subjunctive conditionals identify a “have-would” relation. Here’s an example: “If Shakespeare had not written Hamlet, then some aristocrat would have.” The first declares a state of affairs, and can be verified (I actually think it a credible claim); the second is “daft” speculation of the monkeys-with-typewriters variety. Bennett also discusses a third class of “rare” conditionals he names “independent,” primarily to identify causal and moral conditionals; while the philosophical writing privileges the logical conditions of conditionals, it seems to me that literature, which has no pretense to logical purity or consistency (I include even sf), privileges this last category. The main difference between the two main species is the subjunctive character of the second. Counterfactual conditionals are of this second kind, and only when the antecedent is actually false (“if the Nazis had won World War Two, then [any arbitrary q follows]”). That sentence is a historical counterfactual. But since literature is already a subjunctive conditional, and already actually false (that’s what we mean by fictive)—literature is always counterfactual.7
The precise level of subjunctivity has long been understood as one essential characteristic of sf, as Samuel Delany and others have argued. In philosophy, subjunctivity has been used to model the postmodern, or what in The Postmodern Condition (1979) Lyotard has called the “future anterior” (81), though Lyotard also makes a complex joke about French grammar. Similarly, the philosophy of history frequently privileges subjunctivity; indeed, Alan Megill asserts that Michel Foucault’s entire analytic mode is not “is” but “as if”—Foucault should not be taken as making “true propositions regarding the actual institution” (246; my emphasis) or the actual past, but instead as someone sifting possible alternatives.
For sf specifically and especially for alternative history, Bennett identifies a special class of subjunctive conditionals called “backward subjunctive conditionals” (273ff.), which speculate on past conditions that must have produced a present fact. Here’s an example: “the plane arrived at 2pm, so it would have had to leave at noon.” Art frequently traces causality analeptically. Both alternative history and most mainstream literary realism share backward subjunctive conditionals, though alternative history privileges such things as technological analepsis and mainstream realism may be restricted to psychological analepsis.
Like Goodman, Lewis, and most contemporary philosophers, Bennett gives his primary attention to the logical conditions and rules that govern the coherence, verification, and truth-value of subjunctive conditionals, and their application to probability, metaphysics, and philosophical pragmatics. The implications of a discourse that always contains or depends on counterfactuals is traced out in a very different way in Plausible Worlds (1993) by Geoffrey Hawthorn, who focuses on the social sciences rather than fiction. For considerations of space, I must sacrifice fair attention to his argument and only offer a summary of his essential conclusions. Hawthorn, less concerned with their logical status than the way they constitute part of our discourse about the world, shows how historical explanations operate by explicitly posing alternative possibilities, which consequently suggest a full range of plausible alternatives, including counterfactuals. And to use here Bennett’s term, these are all backward subjunctive conditionals. “In explanation,” he remarks, “possibilities at once decrease and increase” (10); an individual explanation limits the range of possible explanations by specifying specific conditions and resolving ambiguities, but this limit a fortiori invokes the wide diversity of alternative views and weakens the certainly of the initial explanation.
An explanation, in short, locates something in actuality, showing its actual connections with other actual things. Its success as an answer to the question ‘why?’ will turn on the plausibility of the reasoning … that we invoke to make the connection. The plausibility of the reasoning will turn on the counterfactual it suggests. And if the counterfactual itself is not plausible, we should not give the explanation the credence we otherwise might. (16-17; see also 27)
The more powerfully compelling the explanation, the more compelling the corresponding counterfactuals implicitly invoked, and so the more contingent the explanation seems. Because the factual opens a metaleptic chain of counterfactual alternatives, historical discourse cannot be said to produce knowledge claims. Because this is so, Hawthorn continues, we cannot make knowledge claims about the past. We can only discuss the explanatory coherence (or incoherence) of competing claims. But Hawthorn does go on to say that historical discourse produces another paradox:
The dialectic of inquiry and reflection by which we come to understand is one which reduces our certainty and in that sense our knowledge as it adds to it. In this way and to this extent, success in History and the social sciences, as perhaps in life itself, consists in understanding more and knowing less. (37)
This account sounds more like the ones we typically give of literature than we normally give of history: that the presence of counterfactuals in our discourse serves to diminish explanatory knowledge claims but to increase the richness, subtlety, and depth of human understanding about the world.
As We Know It. Duncan claimed the crux of alternative history is that it alters the past “as we know it.” I have said that these counterfactuals are backward subjunctive conditionals that, when analyzed following the manner of Goodman, Bennett, and especially Hawthorn, lead us to see that our present discourse about the past does not produce knowledge claims (or said in a more philosophically accurate way, it produces “weak” knowledge claims). Alternative history, then, does not change the past as we know it, but changes our understanding about the past we know. Alternative history proposes a “new” understanding of historiography. Let us use a concrete example from Gibson’s novel.
In Pattern Recognition, there are two important moments of historically contingent subjunctivity that rupture the novel’s empirical present: (1) when the twin towers fall and Cayce Pollard’s father Wingrove disappears; and (2) six weeks later, when “by virtue of random exposure” (53) Cayce happens upon an unfamiliar troika, three men, “crèche-figures of the Three Kings” (53) genuflecting before a DVD player, “align[ing] retina to pixel,” thereby initiating Cayce’s conversion into a “footagehead.” These historical differences have no effect on “the past”; instead, their effect is the utter transformation of Cayce’s present.8
This conception of history foregrounds an intellectual position usually named historicism.9 The term itself presents considerable difficulty; equivocation often seems its only rule of usage (Iggers 457-59). Like “postmodernism,” it has been used by so many to mean so much that it sometimes seems to mean nothing at all. The semantic slippage is exacerbated by the problem of practice, for even those who deploy the term with some rigor frequently then proceed with blithe disregard for the theory: which calls for a certain semiological and etymological hygiene.10
There have been two general strains of historicist thought that we may vaguely describe as “old” and “new” historicisms, although both have their sources in the eighteenth and early ninteenth centuries. If you ask a working historian or literary academic what the word means, you will get a useful, if rather fuzzy answer—that to interpret a cultural artifact, we must embed it within its immediate historical context. In this sense, we are all historicists, and we can call this the “weak” historicist position. Historically, the several species of historicism emerged as a means to negotiate absolutism and relativism. The most common nineteenth-century usage of historicism names a politically imperialist and philosophically idealist speculative conception best articulated by Hegel, who saw human spirit as progressively detaching itself from nature, then marching relentlessly toward a singular perfection (Rée 966-69). Similar notions run throughout European and American historiography and present disturbing comparisons with such later views as Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism,” cultural exceptionalisms, or even scientific movements such as eugenics. This older historicism tends to subordinate historical difference to a normative, often nationalist, account of human progress or a positivist taxonomy of change, and above all else to claim a scientific separation of the historical interpretation from its objects. Positivist historicism, one that differs radically from the Hegelian idealist formulation, is usually called historism and is most often associated with Leopold von Ranke, who famously argued that the historian must “efface himself” to provide an objectively truthful “reenactment of the past” (qtd. in Ankersmit 195). Ranke’s historism sought to identify historical difference by embracing and articulating cultural specificities rather than subordinating historical narrative to a unifying general concept, as the Hegelian approach did.
The “strong” kind of historicism constitutes a skeptical repudiation of the “old” historicism; though there are important symmetries, it ought not be conflated with the movement in American literary criticism known as the “New Historicism.” As the intellectual historian Donald Kelley remarks, “in general, historicism is not a concept but an attitude, not a theory but a scholarly practice, not a system of explanation but a mode of interpretation” (1001a). This “new” mode of interpretation found its most famous and most radical formulation in the “strong” articulation by the early twentieth-century Italian aesthetician Benedetto Croce—“Every true history is contemporary history” (qtd. in Kelley 1001a), or sometimes translated as “All history is contemporary history”(qtd. in Iggers 462).
To the extent that historicism is “about” the past, it is about mining the past for differences from the present. For instance, in Before Intimacy: The Social Structure of Passion from Wyatt to Shakespeare (2006), Daniel Juan Gil explores how early modern thought about the emotions differs from that of the present, creating different social structures and different understandings of sexual relationships. Gil shows how it is problematic to assume that the English Elizabethans had the “same” emotions as we do. While the term’s “weak” use merely means that cultural artifacts, especially books, must be understood in their historical embeddedness and so interpreted as parts of differential networks—symptoms of nested cultural forces larger than a single writer’s psyche or a single text’s formal aesthetics—“strong” historicism suggests a far more radical view. While he did not coin the term, it was Giambatista Vico who in The New Science (1744) first advocated the “new” historicist attitude, saying that men make their own history, a phrase later used by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Croce’s view develops from Vico’s, but is more extreme. Croce means that we compulsively and ineluctably superimpose our current values and ideological bias onto what we read, shaping the (belated) past as a repetition of the present; further, he argues that doing so is not only inevitable, but desirable.
Other prominent twentieth-century intellectuals and historians have held variants of this view, including Michel Foucault. At the end of the preface to his most influential book, Discipline and Punish (1974), he poses the rhetorical question why do we study the past? His answer: “Why? Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present” (31).
Perhaps the most practical understanding of the historicist project is articulated by Richard Rorty, when in “The Historiography of Philosophy” he sifts through four alternative models of thinking historically and praises one—Geistegeschichte, or a history of problematics: it “works at the level of problematics rather than solutions to problems. It spends more of its time asking, ‘Why should anyone have made the question of ______ central to his thought?’ or ‘Why did anyone take the problem of ______ seriously?’ than” in trying to resolve the past’s questions (256). In the case of history, we would turn our attention not to the nature of what constitutes history but toward asking why and to what end a particular person or culture seeks an answer. In doing so, we might “see the history of philosophy as the story of the people who made splendid but largely unsuccessful attempts to ask the questions we ought to be asking” (273). This pragmatist, nominalist historicism is sometimes also referred to as “presentism” (see Hutton).
Here Rée is worth quoting at length, although what I have labeled the second kind of historicism Rée names non- or anti-historicist:
The point of a nonhistoricist approach to history would be to respect the historicity of things, the fact that they take place without benefit of an enveloping historical plot, and have regard for what Foucault calls, in a telling phrase, the “play of scarcity (rareté)” as opposed to the idea of an “unbroken abundance of meaning (générosité continue du sens).” The antihistoricist program which Foucault suggests here—and which many of his works have carried out with striking success—would perhaps be well described as “postmodernist” if that term had not already been taken over by a fantastic kind of superhistoricism: an epochal self-consciousness which does nothing except chronicle its own timeliness. (976)
Rée’s quotation of Foucault is from “L’Ordre du discours” (1970), which appears in English translation as “The Discourse on Language,” appended to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969); there, Rupert Swyer’s translation reads: “one thing must be understood here: that the analysis of discourse thus understood, does not reveal the universality of a meaning, but brings to light the action of imposed rarity, with a fundamental power of affirmation. Rarity and affirmation; rarity, in the last resort of affirmation—certainly not any continuous outpouring of meaning, and certainly not any monarchy of the signifier” (234). Foucault’s “presentism,” then, is notable for two things: first, it refuses to offer itself as the last word on history, and second, it refuses to ignore the presentness of its own interpretation. This point is made by Vesser in a slightly different way when he remarks that “that every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes” (xi).11
Using “old” and “new” with “weak” and “strong,” we can categorize individual doctrines as one or another view; for instance, Jameson’s, as expressed in The Political Unconscious (1981), would be a “weak new” historicism. “New strong” historicism—Foucault’s, Rorty’s—would be “postmodern.” It does not claim a privileged cognitive position, assert that it alone is in the pure presence of truth, or think itself outside the errors of the past. It is fundamentally an attitude rather than a method, doctrine, or system. It is an alternative historicism that precisely matches the project of alternative history: to re-imagine the present, recognize historicity’s contingency, and address the profound alterity of the historically other, which includes the moment of interpretation (and so directly engages the reader).
It is not what we know, but the active critical engagement with knowing— “as” we know it.
Recognizing Ambivalence. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson has several characters voice the historicist view, sometimes explicitly (Hubertus Bigend) and sometimes implicitly (Cayce Pollard). In the novel’s central and ironic contradiction, one character (Parkaboy, Gibson’s textual representative and authorial metonym) dismisses historicist interpretation as rhetorical sleight-of-hand, pomo mumbo-jumbo; yet the novel itself adopts a postmodern historicism—especially in terms of the plot and Cayce’s musings on the goal of her quest to uncover the miraculous “Garage Kubrick” (47), the maker of enigmatic yet unquestionably sublime fragments of film circulating on the Internet, fragments that have become the nexus of international obsession among a small but cultivated cognoscenti.
The novel’s most representative moment comes at a business dinner where Cayce meets Bigend. The importance of this scene is suggested by Gibson’s choice of it as the source for the dust jacket cover blurb to adorn and frame the novel. To Bigend’s initial query—“How do you think we look to the future?” (55), Cayce replies that “They won’t think of us … the actual, living souls”; Bigend responds that: “We have no future.… Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day” (57); the past has lost its cogency. In Bigend’s view, “we have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition” (57). Then “channeling Parkaboy from memory,” Cayce insists that
“The future is there looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become.... [T]he one constant in history is change: the past changes. Our version of the past will interest the future to about the extent we’re interested in whatever past the Victorians believed in. It simply won’t seem very relevant.” (57)
Bigend is reduced to thoughtful silence (57)—sort of. I’ll return to this momentarily.
Both Bigend’s and Cayce’s views are historicist—in the strong, Crocean sense. Bigend’s view is a kind of cynical relativism, an extreme form of historicist thought, even if it misapplies the central position. But oddly, this strong historicism is precisely the sort of postmodern BS that Parkaboy otherwise disdains as the drivel (48, 224) or “pomo bellowings of fat cow A” (74), Mama Anarchia, aka Dorotea Benedetti, the novel’s (and Cayce’s) antagonist. In the exchange with Bigend, Cayce channels Parkaboy—which we take to mean that she merely parrots the authorial metonym’s arguments, apparently in direct opposition to Bigend’s fashionable diffidence. Cayce, however, is not Parkaboy’s parrothead; in several cases, the two nominally agree whereas Cayce actually takes another view. For instance, when Bigend later proposes that Cayce become his agent to uncover the maker (63-71), Cayce unequivocally and enthusiastically takes the “Completist” view of the footage (68-69), which aligns her with Mama Anarchia rather than Parkaboy, who holds the “Progressive” view (46).
Here in the case of the business dinner, Gibson gives us a scene where we are inclined to reject precisely the same sort of position the exchange actually advocates, signaling ambivalence about the central concepts at play. Unpacking how such scenes operate is to practice Geistegeschichte, something the novel explicitly precipitates.12
Nor, it turns out, is Bigend just a figure of derision, as his name might initially suggest. Many readers will recognize the allusion to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In Lilliput, the “Big-end” heresy is that people should break their eggs on the big end rather than the small end (62). In a prior century Lilliput’s emperor decreed for the latter, and so far 11,000 people have been executed, while many others have fled to the neighboring country of Blefuscu, causing a series of wars then in its 63rd year (62-63). This allegorized conflict between Catholics and Protestants precipitates Gulliver’s flight to Bigendian Blefuscu. Rather than “a mere strain upon the text” (63), as Gulliver quotes a Lilliputian official saying, Bigend’s unusually comic name invokes the Swiftian intertext of people who cannot understand the absurdity of their own beliefs or behaviors.
Simultaneously attracted and repulsed, Cayce finds Bigend’s money and power repulsive but cannot resist the attraction of either, initially describing him as “Tom Cruise on a diet of virgin’s blood and truffled chocolates” (6). Cayce’s friend Margot calls him a “Lombard”: her acronym for “Loads of money but a real dickhead” (55). Bigend is simply a talented narcissist, a pomo boho promo spin-doctor, whose “pr” is not pattern recognition but public relations (63). Yet he also instigates and then bankrolls the search for the maker, the novel’s central project. Any discoveries that Cayce makes, or any epiphanies thereby produced, therefore somehow owe both their conceptual genesis and their incremental progress to Bigend. Similarly, he introduces to the novel the serious discussion of history, time, and our relation to both future and past. When the novel ends, he has not tried to transform the footage into television commercials. In short, Gibson presents Bigend as an individual anomaly, as a complex problem to be confronted rather than, as Margot thinks, a simple narcissist to be simply dismissed.
The historicist position appears more frequently as Gibson’s books progress and mature. Neuromancer actually has few such traits, except perhaps for the superficial surface features that might initially seem an index of the style; Gibson’s books have become progressively more postmodern, culminating with Pattern Recognition (see endnote 10). In All Tomorrow’s Parties, the final panel in Gibson’s “Bridge” triptych, there is both a Bigend analog and a Cayce analog—Cody Harwood and Colin Laney. In a close parallel with Cayce’s tame pathology, Laney’s peculiar skill concerns identifying data configurations through what he names the “nodal vision”—the ability to see the figure in the carpet when others cannot. In Idoru, the novel that first introduces Laney and his ability, the skill is called “pattern recognition” (193), the ability to read the semiosis of any data stream. Despite various inversions and reversals—such as how Laney’s skill begins by exposure to an experimental drug (“5-SB”) and Cayce’s ends with such an exposure (354-55), or that at one point Harwood is described as “shy and smiling and gently elusive” (164)—most of Gibson’s characters, situations, and themes find a analog or a parallel in one or another of his books. Cayce’s search for the maker recalls Marly’s search for the “boxmaker” in Count Zero.13 At one point a little more than halfway through All Tomorrow’s Parties, Laney is sifting through the data flow that swirls around Harwood and his “PR firm” (15) when he locates “a locus of nodal points, a sort of meta-node” (165). This discovery leads him to reflect on what he does, remarking that “history too was subject to the nodal vision,” which in turn leads him to reflect on history: “He had been taught that history … was narrative … and those narratives were revised by each new generation…. History was plastic, was a matter of interpretation.” But Laney’s skill is to see “emergent systems,” and the system he now sees emerging is history: something very different. “It was the shape comprised of every narrative, every version....” To understand history as a shape, a figure of all narratives, may be the historicist position par excellence, yet here too Gibson’s scene demonstrates a profound ambivalence, for Laney thinks that he is surpassing the “old history” that he has been taught, though this “old history” similarly resembles an historicist understanding of history (“History was plastic, was a matter of interpretation”). This sort of circular ambivalence frequently appears in our thought; it is hardly unique in Gibson. But in this particular instance we would do well to recall the brilliant reading of Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957) by Robert D’Amico, who shows that Popper uses historicist methods, arguments, and conclusions to critique historicism (17-31). Much more than a mere tu quoque argument, D’Amico reveals that “Popper’s vigorous demonstration of the ‘poverty’ of historicism was actually a propaedeutic to absorbing that rich tradition into his own work” (31). One imagines that similar replies might be given to other anti-historicist positions.
A different instance of the novel’s ambivalence can be seen in the book’s linearity as juxtaposed to the fragmentary footage. The Progressives praise the decontextualized fragments, and Cayce herself seems to prefer to experience each fragment as a separate, complete whole rather than in one or another of the montaged combinations proposed by footageheads. And yet the novel itself remains the most conventionally linear of Gibson’s long fictions, something he has named in interviews as a conscious intention: it tells a single continuous narrative around a single character, lacks the jump-cuts characteristic of his earlier work, and so forth (Dorsey, “An Interview” 10a). Take another version of this same ambivalence: apparently, Bigend’s prospective project for the footage is to spin it for profit. Structurally what Bigend would do is reduce it, subordinate it to a normalizing rule of linear narrative, arrange the disparate fragments into a sequential organic whole, a diegetically sound unity fit for viewing at your local multiplex or for attaching to and promoting some fashionable consumer commodity. Cayce remarks time and again that the footage’s energizing mystery derives from its purity, its authenticity as art rather than as commodity. But when juxtaposed to the novel itself, we cannot but help to recognize that Gibson writes novels under contracts with large corporations that then market his work; he then heads off to a “marketing fiesta” (“An Interview” 11b), as he calls the book tour, and in the case of Pattern Recognition, Putnam produced more spin and more marketing than for any of his previous books, especially since they thought it would sell to readers outside the genre of sf. Hence, on the one hand, the book ridicules linear narrative wholes and, on the other, explicitly constitutes an exemplary instance, especially considering Gibson’s corpus/case, of narratives marketed to potential markets. The text contemptuously dismisses someone who would commodify the footage—something the novel itself does.
To return to Bigend’s moment of silence: in the earliest printed version of the novel—the “uncorrected proof” distributed for review—the scene continues for another page. Bigend extends Cayce’s specific comment about history to a general claim about the past: “Where we have been, as you say, is a fiction, subject to change” (58). He then invokes the ineluctable present: “But the moment, our narrow and magnificent little now, that was restored to us when the towers fell. When they came crashing down, we blinked, and shivered, and we were restored to the moment.” Deleting this speech deletes or at least defers the notion of a restored, pure presence, suggesting one of Gibson’s profound ambivalences toward history—even the history of his own novel. Another type of ambivalence might be seen in Cayce’s name, with its added ‘y’ suggesting Gibson’s ambivalence toward his own past writing—he openly revisits and rewrites contingencies of his past, which has the effect of distancing the absolute presence of the text at hand while expressly not adding the “why.” Yes, Cayce Pollard has a male chromosome inserted into her name, but that certainly isn’t enough to X-out our recognition of how this character both recalls and refutes the Case of Neuromancer. Indeed, in Pattern Recognition’s first hardcover edition, even Gibson makes that mistake—on page 117 she is called “Case,” ironically in the chapter named “Apophenia,” defined as “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things” (115). This is surely either an instance of what Freud called parapraxis or what rhetoricians call apophasis—making explicit the implicit fact. In interviews and promotional statements Gibson has expressly denied there is any connection in the names Case/Cayce; as Cayce herself remarks, “she is not one of those who think that much will be gained by analysis of the maker’s imagined influences” (4). It is especially at such moments that good readers should attend to the man behind the curtain. Case is Cayce’s invisible “watermark” (80).14 Of the several inferences one might draw, the most significant would be one about decentered subjectivity: no one is unmediated, no one is pure, no one is unbranded. A crude expression of this point would be to observe something about Cayce’s clothes; Cayce Pollard Units are branded items unbranded to be rebranded as CPUs: they “ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention” (8).
Since the immediate present is perpetually deferred, one of the novel’s central ambivalences is a nostalgia for lost wholeness and unmediated authenticity, either in the personal perceptual world or in art. This is seen in several obvious ways, such as the fetish about the footage and its authenticity or the recurring dream about the maker’s aesthetic purity. It is also seen in less obvious ways, such as the obsession with “sanding off” the logo, as on the metal buttons of her Levi 501s (2): an overt attempt to erase history, erase the very signs of meaning-construction, because Cayce wants meaning to be mysterious. The novel first identifies them as Levi 501s—then attempts to efface their brand. This is not a semiotic allergy; it is a severe nostalgia—the feeling of irreparable displacement from innocence, from home, from elementary origin—and the pain of that loss. This suggests the fundamental ironies of the final scene, with Cayce feeling whole if not quite at home, in Paris in bed with the authorial metonym, kissing his back, ready to make babies perhaps—simply a spectacular inversion of Leopold Bloom returning to Molly. The next morning, she will come to her senses, knowing full well what she asserted at first: “she has no doubt that commodification will soon follow identification” (10). Without Bigend’s deleted lines, this final scene’s irony defers our narrow and magnificent now.
“An opening into something” (109). At this point, one could turn the analysis in any of several directions. One line of thought should trace the presence and function of coupling notions of nostalgia, authenticity, and wholeness (lost and found again in time), especially as these are somehow connected to Cayce’s interiority and autonomy. The nostalgic motif of recovering lost wholeness, variously a trait of romanticism (255) and modernism, might provide an excellent opportunity to reflect on how alternative history (or perhaps sf generally) may provide “nostalgia blankets” (Clute, “Case” 403) or “homeopathy rather than antidote” (Jameson 391). Perhaps the nostalgia is for authentic purity, and an essay focused on that matter might well begin with a commentary on reproducibility and commodity fetishism: Cayce desires, at least initially, the “aura” that in “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) Walter Benjamin laments as missing, paradoxically stripped away from art even as its reproducibility makes it accessible to people other than some cultural elite. Instead, in the novel easy reproduction creates the “Tommy Hilfiger event horizon” (18) and transforms the simulacrum into an abyss of emptiness, “devoid of soul.” Only the footage retains “aura,” and that only works until we discover the maker as only slightly more self-aware (305) than the artificial boxmaker in Count Zero.
Such a project might go in a slightly different direction, examining Pattern Recognition’s complex intertextual relations with other fictions, even unlikely ones such as Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), an extraordinary instance of an alternative history that revolves around the notion of authenticity, but which treats it as something autonomously made by individuals rather than found in others. Although Pattern Recognition only uses the word “authentic” twice—once by Damien to name a worker’s prison tattoo (73) and once in relation to the Curta Cayce has purchased from Greenaway to trade to Hobbs-Baranov (252)—surely it identifies the invisible watermark of Cayce’s aesthetics.
Or we could turn to Pattern Recognition’s imagery. The novel’s internal trope for this alternate interiority is “mirror world” (the ironic externalization of interiority). One of the three most common metaphors of representation (with the window/door and the lamp), “mirror” carries the burden of mimetic fidelity, precisely the notion Gibson has named as the function of art—“mirrors that remember” (“Filmless”). Yet we immediately recognize a mirror world as an inversion, a symmetrical opposite. In Pattern Recognition, the mirror metaphor doesn’t so much reverse as evert, fold inside out; it does not so much reflect and so make available for commentary as ironize and explode, something not suggested by the early emblem of cyberpunk— mirrorshades. As Win thinks, the “genuine threat [is] invariably less symmetrical” (294). One might turn this toward a long discussion of literary mimesis, using any number of critical vocabularies, from the more familiar terms of Horace or Sidney or a don of the postmodern academy to the more technical discussions, such as that by Umberto Eco in his chapter on the semiotics of mirrors in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984).
I hope I have established that all of these matters hinge on the novel’s pervasive, implicit ambivalence. Of course, on the one hand this night be regarded as just more of Gibson’s oxymoronic outlook. As Gibson remarks in No Maps: “like Fredric Jameson’s ‘postmodern divine’—you have … a sense of loss and a sense of Christmas morning, at the same time” (§7). Yet the oxymorons in Neuromancer are restricted to stylistic acrobatics and imagery (“high-speed drift” , “solid fluidity” ) rather than possessing the novel’s dynamics (Case never conflates meatspace and cyberspace).
I find such ambivalence profitably productive rather than merely contradictory. Jameson rightly says that the search for the maker is not the center of the novel; rather, it is the contradiction between the nameless and the named, the authentic passion and the commodified product:
Indeed, it is rather this very contradiction which is the deeper subject of Pattern Recognition, which projects the Utopian anticipation of a new art premised on ‘semiotic neutrality,’ and on the systematic effacement of names, dates, fashions and history itself, within a context irremediably corrupted by all those things. The name-dropping, in-group language of the novel thus revels in everything the footage seeks to neutralize: the work becomes a kind of quicksand, miring us ever more deeply in what we struggle to escape. Yet this is not merely an abstract interpretation, nor even an aesthetic; it is also the existential reality of the protagonist herself, and the source of the “gift” that informs her profession. (389-90)
Here, of course, we find the essence of Gibson’s unmediated nostalgia for an unmediated real, a pure presence of the present, utterly authentic, outside all commodities: against the danger of “all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations of the same thing” (Pattern Recognition 341). Yet we know there are no aesthetics purely outside commodity aesthetics, no unmediated intuition of the real, no naïve experience untouched by language or irony or representation. “Cayce knows that she is, and has long been, complicit” (194). This is the very point of the phrase pattern recognition: “Homo sapiens is about pattern recognition…Both a gift and a trap” (22).15
In literature, such imbricated ambivalence does not mean having no strong emotion, or failing to take sides, or refusing judgment. Nor does it mean the failure to be an accomplished maker. Two examples would include Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Beloved, a powerful and beautiful novel of witness that traces historical and moral facts against the psychology of both the central characters and contemporary readers, ends with a remarkably powerful coda, something all the more remarkable for the ambivalence of its closing imperative: “This is not a story to pass on” (274-75). The culmination of the entire novel, that imperative has a double articulation: first, since it is a horrible and terrible tale, this is not a story we ought to pass on to others and ought best forget it; and second, this is a story so undeniably important we cannot pass on it, we cannot choose to decline or to ignore it or keep it to ourselves. Ambivalence in Dickinson functions similarly—to place the matter of choice with the reader, or more precisely, to confront the reader with a choice. Her ambivalence is structured through the odd metaphors, the odd typography, and even the main element of syntactical organization, the dash (see Cameron).
Here in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, ambivalence about self, or history, or loss, or wholeness, or narrativity creates not a lack of passion, or a contradiction, but an aporia—an opening onto something we should call thought itself. As Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt suggest, “Aporia are not places where forms refer only to themselves, but are rather the tears where energies, desires, and repressions flow out into the world” (109).
Pattern Recognition is about the present, which is to say it is alternative history, by which we mean nothing more than that it is literature. This is the curiously ambivalent purpose—simultaneously mundane and profound, narrow and magnificent—served by Gibson’s alternate present.
1. Paul Alkon, in his Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), identifies Louis Geoffroy’s 1836 novel Napoléon et la conquête du monde [Napoleon and the Conquest of the World] as the first “uchronia of alternate history” in western literature (115). I am grateful to Arthur B. Evans for bringing this detail to my attention.
2. This novel is that sort of slipstream alternative history sometimes referred to, along with Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates (1983) or Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle (2003-04), as steampunk, though that term is also somewhat conflicted.
The Difference Engine “attempts a critique of the present and near future through a reworked model of the past” (Rapatzikou xvii). Joseph Conte names the novel’s point of divergence as a “technological analepsis” (38), which is as often the basis for an alternative history as the difference of major historical events, such as Lindbergh’s election to the presidency in Roth’s The Plot Against America. Conte’s clever insight suggests that narrative analepsis necessarily precipitates a readerly prolepsis (45-50), a projective reading of how alternate pasts presage and critique readerly presents.
It is no coincidence that an alternative history divides Gibson’s early work (the Sprawl triptych) from the later work (the Bridge triptych). For my discussion of the formal relations between the first and the second series, see my forthcoming “Recognizing Patterns: Gibson’s Hermeneutics from the Bridge Triptych to Pattern Recognition” in Beyond the Reality Studio, eds. Sherryl Vint and Graham J. Murphy.
3. There are significant differences between the uncorrected text and the published versions, to which I will later return.
4. I’d like to develop this point by linking Morson’s notion of narrative eventness to Lyotard’s discussion of a (postmodern) sublime, which revolves around two phrases—“is it happening?” and “the presentation of the unpresentable.” Unfortunately, this very large project must be deferred.
5. Since Goodman’s main interest was in articulating a logical rule by which to judge counterfactuals, and since his work was written more for philosophers than literary critics, I will not discuss him in any detail. For similar reasons, I will not engage the work of David Lewis, though if you ask a contemporary philosopher whom to read on the problem, Lewis is consistently mentioned first.
6. Bennett’s book is also quite technical, but it does provide excellent extensive expository analysis. Here I will draw freely on Bennett, and take or adapt several of his examples, as is common philosophic practice.
7. This is what leads some people to say that fiction makes no statements and has no relationship whatsoever to the real world. See, for example, “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse” (1975) by the philosopher John Searle, who is really only extending a line of argument initially advanced by Bertrand Russell. There are, of course, philosophical alternatives to such conclusions; see for instance, the remarkable Fictional Worlds (1986), where Thomas Pavel argues that precisely because the “ontological landscapes” of the imagination have no rigid essence (or logical truth-value) they create a meaningful relation to the world. In the literary tradition, Boccaccio and Philip Sidney first introduced the notion that poetry contains no claims to truth, and that this is precisely what makes it true about the world.
8. There are numerous other minor counterfactuals, though these play negligible roles. For instance, one plot thread concerns the Curta calculator that Cayce buys from a London dealer to bribe Hobbs-Baranov to uncover a web address for the source of the footage; the item Cayce buys is the “fourth prototype” (249), when in fact the machine’s maker Curt Herzstark made just three. Though the Curta is the catalyst that connects the novel’s various threads, the fact that no fourth prototype exists is not fundamental to the narrative dynamics. See Morse (331).
9. Many positions commonly labeled “historicist” or “historicism” are not; a good many “New Historicists” understand the term only in the crude and vulgar sense; and many historicists avoid the term because of its historical accretions—most of them pejorative. For sensible accounts of the central problems, their use, and their developments in practice, see Ankersmit, Kelley, Iggers, Rée, and Gallagher and Greenblatt.
10. I take the overdetermined term “postmodern” to designate a rigorous if ironic conceptual skepticism, and follow Lyotard’s definition (“incredulity toward metanarratives” [Postmodern xxiv]) rather than the more historically periodized (such as Jameson’s) or the more ontologically quixotic (such as Baudrillard’s). On the crucial problematics, postmodern thought remains profoundly agnostic or ambivalent, attuned to opening rather than answering questions. In the arts, the postmodern names an array of formal devices and techniques. Among the (alas literally) hundreds of secondary sources that struggle to provide succinct and practical taxonomic summaries, see Andrew M. Butler, Christopher Butler, and Veronica Hollinger. These sources are all quite useful, though as an acolyte of Lyotard I recommend the short essay appended to his The Postmodern Condition: “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?”
If “the ultimate rhetorical and dialectical device of modernism is the phrase ‘no longer’” (Rée 974), then the defining characteristic of postmodernism is its openly ambivalent entanglements with what modernism thought could be escaped, reformed, or sublimed. This is what Lyotard meant when he famously declared that “Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end, but in the nascent state, and this state is constant” (79; my emphasis). In the French text, Lyotard uses the word “retrouver”—recurrent, constantly happening, never stopping, continually refound. The postmodern, then, is an attitude, not a genre; and insofar as it characterizes a historical moment, that moment is constant, continual, and recursive.
In a 1992 article for SFS, I held that cyberpunk, specifically Neuromancer, was not an instance of the postmodern. There I asserted that, pace the famous phrase in Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s justly famous essay, cyberpunk was “the apotheosis of the Modern” (392n1). My central thinking has not changed. Modernism’s defining conceit was its rejection of a moribund past as obsolescent and its own miraculous transcendence of those past inadequacies. This is what came to be called “the avant-garde,” something the postmodern explicitly repudiates (see Bürger §1) by its ironic embrace of the history of art. A comparison of Sterling’s 1986 manifesto/preface in the Mirrorshades volume with both the tone and tenor of Pattern Recognition shows that the new novel makes no attempt to repudiate either the past or the history of art, but in its ironic use defines an ambivalence characteristic of what we mean by “postmodern.”
11. This is the second of the five working assumptions Veeser names as characteristic of a “new historicist” literary criticism.
12. My Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ambivalence as “simultaneous conflicting feelings toward a person or thing,” and we tend to think of the word invoking a state that describes a lack of passion (“I am ambivalent about Martha’s cheesecake”) rather than the way I want to use it, as signifying a profound moment of threshold liminality between various valences, a word which while uncommon in English has wide usage in the Romance languages. It derives from Latin and means “capacity,” especially one which rests within a range of possible states.
13. For an extended discussion of these intertextual symmetries and asymmetries, see my forthcoming “Recognizing Patterns” (see note 2).
14. Again, this is a point I develop in “Recognizing Patterns,” where I will say that Pattern Recognition is Neuromancer’s palinode.
15. What Cayce hunts is true novelty, the next new thing that is not reducible to a mere repetition of the past. But is there anything that is not a repetition or that is not mediated by the conceptual function we call commodification? See, for instance, Terdiman (306-43), who brilliantly demonstrates that the attempt, such as Mallarmé’s, to create an art entirely outside the economy of bourgeois value and exchange actually created “the nightmare representation” (323)—modeling art following the very notion of a commodity that has value only for the singular thing it is.
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Pattern Recognition, Gibson’s most recent novel, is purportedly set in “the present,” and so purportedly marks a significant break both in his own work and in the way sf is conceived. The book’s treatment of the concepts of past, present, and future, however, is inherently ambivalent—that is to say, simultaneously oriented toward several possible alternative positions, some of them mutually exclusive. To clarify this ambivalence, this article engages notions of alternative history, counterfactual conditionals, and historicism to show that Gibson’s novel demonstrates a fundamental fact about fictional discourse: that it necessarily forms an “alternative present” of the readerly now.
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