Science Fiction Studies

# 58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992




Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr

Postmodern Technoculture, or The Gordian Knot Revisited

Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. xxii+438. $34.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Andrew Ross. Strange Weather. Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits. London & NY: Verso, 1991. 275p. $59.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, eds. Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. xvii+327. $39.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

Ever since we have had "Western" history, we have been taught to admire Alexander's bold stroke, when he sliced through the decadently overcomplicated Gordian knot with the consummate logic of his sword blade. Somehow that use of force became associated with reason, and theory became the razor, the keen edge, the brilliant stroke that could cut through the tangle of the world. With postmodernism and what Fredric Jameson calls postmodernism theory, the knot is making a comeback.

The Gordian knot is a good emblem for the problem of postmodernism. For the postmodern sensibility, the threads of the world are inextricably intertwined. What earlier eras took to be different categorical levels, hierarchical heights and depths, postmodernism sees as twists and loops. With the debunking of the ideas of origins and ends, signs and referents, essences and occasions, the world has come to appear as a great knot, its threads seeming to begin nowhere, ending nowhere, and maybe even imperceptibly fused. This knot does not tie anything up; if we could solve the tangle of languages and the web of communication/control we would not find the Truth revealed inside, like a Christmas present. The knot is all there is; it not only holds postmodern culture together, it is the postmodern world.

This topological fantasy is not as bizarre as it sounds. Fredric Jameson has based his contribution to postmodernism theory on the premise that a "great transformation" took place after World War II, a transition to an international capitalism, whose ideology effected the spatialization of what has previously been conceived temporally (156). The concept of cognitive mapping that informs Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is essentially a socio-topological one. Like the concepts it purports to co-ordinate, cognitive mapping is also a spatializing, explanatory operation that can only go so far in pointing out the vectors of future change and evolution.

Even so, a few things need to be added to the Gordian knot to make it truly postmodern. For us it isn't the cool formal proto-topological symbol of the universe it probably was for the ancients of Asia Minor. For us it must move, even if not toward inevitable self-solution. And since we will be most concerned here with the SF-dimension of recent Left theories of postmodernism, let's change the knot's strands into...serpents. Harryhausen serpents. That's the ticket: the Gordian knot of postmodernism is a writhing tangle of stop-animation serpents. And no cardboard heroes in sight.

Jameson's perspective on postmodernism is that of an observer of the knot. He stands at a distance, walks around it, examines several threads, moves to a new vantage, all the while commenting on the "flow" of the knot. Most of the essays in Postmodernism have appeared before, and the title essay has had such a powerful influence on the concept of the postmodern that I will assume most readers of SFS will not need them explained. It is striking, however, to readers familiar with Jameson's pioneering work on SF that he does not explicitly discuss the genre very much in the book. Jameson treats architecture, video, installations, film, the syntax of Claude Simon, and other privileged concrete compartments of pomo culture. But not SF.

The book's introduction, it is true, opens with an allusion to William Gibson, to which Jameson adds a footnote regretting the absence of a chapter on cyberpunk, "henceforth, for many of us, the supreme literary expression of, if not postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself" (419, n.1). Evidently, SF in general and cyberpunk in particular would have a privileged position in the constellation of postmodern expressive modes, were Jameson to discuss them. It's easy to imagine why: what more potent image of spatialization is there than Gibson's cyberspace and its real-world cousins, Virtual Reality and Artificial Life? Postmodernism does include short meditations on LeGuin and the utopian revival of the 60s, Delany's use of undigested chunks of theory as an aesthetic device, Road Warrior and Blade Runner, Ballard's "Voices of Time," as well as a longer analysis of Dick's Time Out of Joint as a model for the ideological double bind of American culture in the 50s. These quick hits are important to the arguments in which they occur, and there is much to be said for folding discussions of SF unobtrusively into the whole fabric of postmodernism without distinguishing it as a distinct genre--if contemporary SF truly does produce the supreme literary expression of pomo, then why should it be artificially separated and put on display?

This must be why Jameson refers nowhere in Postmodernism to his influential essays on SF, not even in footnotes or his bibliography. There are rumors that these will soon be collected in a separate volume. That would do them justice, for SF figures at the heart of Jameson's theory of postmodernism. Jameson makes much of the historical affinity he detects between the historical novel and SF. Like the historical novel, which emerged in Europe at a time when national cultures were forced to imagine the concept of historicity, i.e., that social life is subject to fundamental changes at the hands of human agents, SF is, for Jameson, a new form adequate to the new historical (or rather post-historical) consciousness of the age. If the historical novel "corresponded" to the emergence of historicity in the late 18th, early 19th century, "science fiction equally corresponds to the waning or blockage of that historicity, and particularly in our time (in the postmodern era), to its crisis and paralysis, its enfeeblement and repression" (284). This is the basis for an extraordinarily rich analysis which Jameson does not, in fact, provide.

There are obvious differences between the Lukácsian view of the historical novel and quasi-Lukácsian views of SF (apart from the fact that it's difficult to imagine Lukács ever considering SF an adequate vehicle of social representation). There is in the Marxist view of historical fiction a sort of adequation-test, which has to do with the degree of dialectical class-conscious analysis of concrete social phenomena that the bourgeois European readership might see around them. By contrast SF is, as Ballard is so often quoted saying, a literature not won from experience. The many varieties of SF have to stand up to completely different tests. If they are analogies, they are abstract model-producing analogies, and their test is more statistical than dialectical. Even when we agree with Jameson and most Left critics of SF that SF is about the present, we cannot ignore that is also profoundly future-oriented. Not like historical novels, which were explicitly intended to be interventions in national partisan conflicts that, it was hoped, would be resolved in the future. SF's future is full of the promise of breaks as radical and novums as unpredictable as the "great transformation" of the postmodern present through its cyber-evolution. There is always an element of the wager about SF: a system of bets on what will last and what will wither away, wagers that are not entirely logical--cultural, historical or otherwise. A fundamental wager of SF concerns how much of the evolution of the future is a matter of logic at all.

The notion that SF is adequate to the blockage of history sounds very similar to Lukács's own assessment of the sincere realistic historical novelists at the end of the heroic period of critical realism. They may have done their best, but they simply did not have a reality sufficiently great to be displaced into a great art. Is Jameson implying the same about SF? If we are to go on the evidence in Postmodernism, Jameson's view of SF is, on the whole, negative. Once the naive utopian experiments of LeGuin and 60s "heterotopian" SF are factored out, SF is evidently a machine for producing images for the blockage of historical consciousness. Many of Jameson's pieces in SFS, from the essay on Aldiss's Starship through the often-cited "Progress versus Utopia," have treated SF as a rich and powerful symptom of the absolute bad faith of postmodernism. To what extent Jameson is now basing his theory of the postmodern on cyberpunk I would love to know.

Eventually, I believe, Jameson's theory of the postmodern will have to ride a serpent or two, if it is to go beyond a distant description of a cultural-historical period as if it were already finished and contained. Like Haraway's cyborg and Baudrillard's fatal strategies, it takes a kind of delirious entry into the knot to imagine its transformations. What is lost in such a letting go is the sort of rational comprehensiveness that has always been Jameson's great gift as a cultural critic. For the moment, Jameson has offered a compromise. Postmodernism tries to balance the postmodern demand for de-totalizing accounts with Jameson's own modernist commitment to totalizing description. The compromise is in the form of a constellation of cultural manifestations that are linked by the underlying economic determination of late capitalism (determination in the last instance in crypto?), but whose relations to the social-economic formation are incredibly complex. "In periodizing phenomena of this kind," he writes, "we have to complicate the model with all kinds of supplementary epicycles" (xix). Epicycles, indeed; is postmodernism theory a Ptolemaic cosmology awaiting its Copernicus? Rather than a full totalizing theory or a display of difference, Postmodernism is best read as an excursion, an extended meditation reaching a serene climax in the "associative flow" of the concluding section. It is distant, but it is masterful.

Andrew Ross has no use for totalizing theories. Strange Weather has an activist agenda; instead of standing away from the knot to try to see it whole (impossible in any case, because of its serpentine shape-changing), Ross comes up close in order to identify certain strands that he believes may be trying to untie themselves.

SW is a synchronic series of cross-sections of contemporary American subcultures for whom technology is a central concern, and who are not explicitly aligned with the historical Left. In his accounts of these subcultures --New Age, hackers, technocrats, cyberpunks, futurologists, and Ross's sweet new category, "weather culture"--Ross studies the ways they reflect the dominant cultures they wish to resist and at the same time the ways they appropriate the tools and forms of the dominant culture for their own uses, displacing, deflecting and subverting hegemonic goals. In design, SW is rather tenuously stretched between the ethnography of techno-subcultures like Sharon Traweek's study of high-energy collider culture, Beamtimes and Lifetimes, and a sort of highbrow Mondo Cane, a travelogue about bizarre practices and belief systems--bizarre at least to the rationalist materialist choir to whom Ross preaches. Ross often shows unexpected sympathy for unlikely objects. His chapters on New Age groups, computer hackers, and weather-watchers gain depth because he becomes a willing subject of their putatively skewed resistance to the dominant culture of multinational capitalism. The obvious criticism is that Ross oversimplifies highly complex and diverse subcultures (especially New Age and SF) for polemical purposes; his point is precisely to understand the liberatory seeds in these scorned communities in order to make them useful for revolutionary social transformation, to discover avenues for synthesis with a green cultural politics.

The groups Ross studies have all been scorned by the Left for the same reason: their ostensibly uncritical commitment to technology. Technocentrism has been traditionally viewed as anti-human or dehumanizing by the New Left, a vulgar submission to the allure of technocratic capitalist manipulation. Without giving up the critique of technoscience as the dominant ideology of multinational capitalism, Ross accepts that technological domination and the reduction of nature are inexorable givens of the postmodern era. The problem then is to understand the agents of technological practice well enough to influence the development of new, emancipatory, democratic technological designs.

This, in opposition to Jameson's magisterial Hegelian historicism, is cyborg populism. Although Ross does not invoke them very often explicitly, the thought of Donna Haraway and the cyborg provides the theoretical vehicle for Ross's touring. Haraway is the most prominent current articulator of this need for the Left to take a fresh look at technology and technocultures in order to begin to use them for counter-hegemonic purposes. Ross goes so far as to imply that one of the subcultures, computer hacking, is the exemplary one. For hackers, who are fiercely proud of their technical identity and jealous of their freedom, are the ones who are actually best placed to practice serious resistance. This leads Ross to propose a generalized hacker identity, a real-world cousin of the theoretical cyborg. Ross wishes to extend the notion of hacker down the caste hierarchy of systems analysts, designers, programmers, and operators, to include all high-tech workers, "who can interrupt, upset, and redirect the smooth flow of structured communications that dictates their position in the social network of exchange and determines the pace of their work schedules" (92). I'm not sure whether this isn't terminological inflation of a group-name that is pretty clearly defined at the moment. And Ross's own enthusiasm for hacker resistance leads to an exaggerated "ich bin ein Hacker" attitude that fudges the distinction between technocultist and literary intellectual that gives Ross' book its intelligence and critical distance in the first place.

SW includes two essays that deal explicitly with SF. "Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum," which treats the technocratic tradition of the Futurians and Gernsback-era SF, and "Cyberpunk in Boystown," which treats cyberpunk as a literature of defeatist technological determinism. It is refreshing to read a discussion about the Gernsback era in terms of its activist social milieu, the "engineers' revolution" dreamed by the Technocracy movement and the Futurians. And Ross restores some dignity and sophistication to the reputation of the Golden Age, which was treated for many years as a world of purely juvenile masculine fantasy. Here too there is some oversimplification--as when Ross takes Gernsback at his word regarding his intentions to provide populist enlightenment through the popularization of science. (My colleague R.D. Mullen has pointed out to me that Gernsback's devotion to the rhetoric of hard science, of which Ross makes much, had little to do with the stories he accepted. And further, the fact that the most popular and imitated SF writer of the period was A. Merritt calls into question Ross' notion that early SF was characterized by straightforward populo-rationalist language.)

Perhaps because of Ross' investment in the notion that hackers are a potentially progressive force, "Cyberpunks in Boystown" is one of the weakest essays in SW. Ross' complete lack of sympathy with the putative subcult is in sharp contrast with his treatment of the New Agers and hackers, leading him to overstate his objections to cyberpunk style. One reason for this is surely that cyberpunk, and Bruce Sterling's megalomaniacal claims for it in the 80s, are sitting ducks. Ross' piece fits into what is by now a fairly thick pile of similar essays by Left SF critics; Darko Suvin, Peter Fitting, Veronica Hollinger, Tom Moylan, myself, and most recently Terence Whalen and Nicola Nixon have all had a bash at that particular serpent, and it has proven to be a surprisingly mild-mannered old python. Indeed, at this point in the game, we may all end up envying Jameson's canny delay in discussing cyberpunk. After having called c-p the apotheosis of the postmodern (I don't retract it), I now wonder whether it is not Sterling's effective game of overstatement that should be studied, rather than his ostensible claims.

More to the point, by clinging to a fairly literalist notion of cyberpunk, Ross misses out on the actual subculture most affected by the SF--namely the engineers of virtual reality. Two of Ross' concrete models of cyberpunk are Gibson's fiction and the role-playing game Cyberpunk. The first is a natural choice, even though I believe by now it is apparent there is more postmodern c-p to be found in Sterling and SF film than in Gibson, who more and more seems to me to be, as an artist, a "late modernist." The latter is an odd choice, since role-playing games are hardly the place to discover the implicit codes of a subculture. An attitude that is conveyed by explicit rules is blatantly derived and in bad faith.

The most significant elements of the cyberpunk world view are cultivated by the visionaries of virtual reality, for whom the transformation of the human being into a cyborg, replete with artificial experiences, is a matter of imminent material possibility. These material changes could affect political and cultural life to an as yet unimaginable degree. A project like Ross' requires the study of VR and its relation to dominant technoscience since VR is in a position to transform the material future, while cyberpunk probably is not.

Furthermore, the fashionable pitting of the cyborg against the cyberpunk, the emancipatory radical feminist theory-being versus the juvenile male romantic outlaw, is, as the saying goes, already tired. Neither term actually names an existing thread in the writhing knot of postmodernism. The cyborg is underdefined...she may yet exist, but perhaps she is by definition in an always not-yet state, an object of terrific desire and hope. The cyberpunk, on the other hand, is overdefined, a fantasy, first of the young SF Turks, then of the information establishment, a Hollywood gentrification of the hacker-nerd. It would be much more useful for the Left to begin to study the vectors of virtualization and the politics of experience it will inevitably create, and soon.

If SW is an attempt to find the potential threads of progress in subcultures that are by and large apolitical, Technoculture,a collection of essays edited by Ross in collaboration with Constance Penley, delivers examples of technophilic social movements that are actively engaged in a politics of liberation. The title of the collection is misleading, since Penley and Ross are interested in technological countercultures, not the broader spectrum of technoculture that characterizes postmodernism as a cultural dominant. As in SW, the essays emphasize the appropriationist praxis of these groups-- which include abortion rights discourse, pornography in Japan, AIDS activism, hacking (Ross' contribution is his chapter of hacking included in SW), rap, popular video, K/S, workers' cultural underground, avant garde and mega-events, and, by way of inoculation, cyberpunk fiction. More than SW, Technoculture speaks the discourse of difference, and is directed to a much more activist, and difference-oriented audience than SW. Indeed, putting the two books together one gets the sense that the distinction between (utopian) social movements and (ideological) subcultures that Ross has attempted to take the edge off in SW (by appropriating from the appropriators) remains very much in force in current Left discourse.

Technoculture also can be read as being under the sign of SF. Haraway, in an interview later republished in her Simians, Cyborgs and Women, discusses her notion of SF as the provider of critical alterity. There are also two explicit discussions of SF. Fitting's "The Lessons of Cyberpunk" is a general overview of cyberpunk's place in the contemporary SF scene. Written primarily to provide a lay audience an account of cyberpunk as a cultural phenomenon, Fitting's piece is a useful critique. But it adds little to the pile of Left essays on c-p I mentioned above, bringing in the usual suspects, Gibson and Sterling. Fitting's is one of only two essays in Technoculture (the other is Jim Pomeroy's "Black Box S-Thetix: Labor, Research, and Survival in the He[Art] of the Beast") that can find almost no redemptive twists in the subculture under discussion. Of course, cyberpunk is no social movement to begin with, and my critique of Ross' treatment of the genre in SW holds for this book, too. Cyberpunk may very well be part of technoculture at large, but it is a straw man in a discussion of emancipatory futurism.

Much more intriguing for me is Constance Penley's account of the K/S, or slash subculture, the community of fans devoted to rewriting the original Star Trek with Kirk and Spock as lovers. This piece, "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology," attempts to describe techno-appropriation by true amateurs. The subject is ripe with interesting questions about gender identification and displacement, of genre/gender bending, and the desire for free self-expression by women wary of feminism's perceived requirements of political correctness and puritanism. Star Trek offers its transformers a thesaurus of SF conventions that welcome subversions: alien contact, esoteric communications, relations between humans and machines, and many other topoi that invite symbolization of gender relations.

Penley has truly landed on one of the most puzzling appropriative phenomena I have ever encountered. It is no wonder that she found it a fascinating practice; but it seems to me that she emphasizes her particular example far more than general theoretical questions about appropriation and liberation. Absent other equally popular underground rewritings of mass cultural texts, K/S seems to stand alone as a model for this activity. It may be the result of Penley's particular interest in psychoanalysis that the most significant element of appropriation/subversion appears to be erotic politics. Since Penley does not theorize this in the essay, but offers no alternative models, the wider significance of K/S remains unclear. The slash phenomenon does not cease to seem eccentric, and it would be nice to know how all this fits into Penley's theory of women's viewing of SF before we actually begin to see mainstream slash movies, and then it'll be too late.

All three of these books are significant contributions to the question of technology's position in postmodern culture. If technology is the determining material system of mediations in postmodernism, then Haraway, Ross, Penley and other students of technoculture are right to study the possible avenues in which technology can be coaxed to serve democratic and humane needs. But the root question that must continue to be asked of the Marxist or radical populist-materialist theory of technology is whether the acceptance of the cyborg theory has not been premature. I read both SW and Technoculture as attempts to give flesh and bones to the cyborg, a concept that remains so indefinite that it equals utopia in its abstraction. The fear of being considered latter-day Luddites or unhip in a technoculture may be leading many intelligent commentators to give up the ethical subject as historical agent a bit precipitously. The very non-materialist and unhip Jacques Ellul makes the claim at the end of The Technological Bluff that ultimately it is the quality of individuals' choices that determine the quality of social life. If individual subjectivities are de-legitimized in favor of the cyborg, whose choices can never be pre-figured, who will choose how to change technological design to make it more democratic? What will democracy be for?

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