So I’m still struggling through the introduction of the PhD thesis I promised to read: understandable since the introduction is still going at page 50. In between my last post and this one I’ve had to wade through some sleep-inducing academic wank, but now I’ve got to the outline in the introduction of the importance of race, and its fluidity in cyberpunk.

The first thing to note, mentioned quite a bit in this article, is that Gibson had never been to Japan when he wrote Neuromancer, which was written in 1982. So here we have a North American in 1982 writing a book redolent with themes from a country he has never visited, during an era when North America was afire with fear of what the Japanese were going to do in America (this was the bubble era and Japan had just, apparently, become the largest creditor nation in the world – they were supposedly buying up American businesses and land). This, I think it’s easy to see, is a situation ripe with potential for cultural stereotypes to eclipse nuanced thinking.

It’s worth noting before we go on – and for the rest of any posts I get around to writing about this – that the author of this thesis I’m studying makes it clear at this point that his goal is not  “reading cultural representation for their positive or negative (authentic or inauthentic) portrayals”, but that he is interested in examining the ways that these representations “function to reiterate, challenge, transform and/or create cultural norms”. His interest is the relationship between existing stereotypes of Japan, the way the cyberpunk texts interpret them, and how these interpretation serve to create new images (at least, that’s what I assume this means). I know a lot of (both of) my readers are eager to find examples of transparent whining leftism, so please relax – this chap is trying to do something a little more interesting than that.

So what does the introduction tell us about how race will be handled in the thesis? For a start, in the 4 pages covering “The Fluidity of Race” we don’t see the word “multiculturalism” once, even though Gibson himself states that “I’ve always lived in Vancouver … a Pacific Rim city with a lot of interaction with Japan.” Vancouver, the world’s most multicultural city, in a country with a policy of multiculturalism… it seems that this might have influenced Gibson’s views on race and his power to interpret race, or to imagine multi-racial societies. Also, isn’t Vancouver in … Canada? But the classic interpretation of cyberpunk is as an American urban myth. So for example we find this description of the relationship between America and Japan at the time:

the now obligatory Japanese reference also marks the obsession with the great Other, who is perhaps our own future rather than our past, the putative winner of the coming struggle – whom we therefore compulsively imitate, hoping that thereby the inner mind-set of the victorious other will be transformed to us along with the externals

[this is actually a quote from Jameson, a key post-modernist writer influencing our author’s text]. But is this right to apply to Gibson? If he lived in Vancouver most of his life, is this relevant? Canada is a resource exporting country, and such countries are never threatened by manufacturing countries the way that another manufacturing country (e.g., America) might be – the manufacturing countries need us so long as we have stuff in the ground. The quote as written certainly sounds like something that could be said about Phillip K Dick, or about Allied war propaganda from world war 2, but is it applicable to the mindset of a man who has “always lived” in a multicultural city as relaxed and easy to live in as Vancouver, in a resource-exporting country? I think it might be a little overwrought. And Jameson seems to be saying this about Bladerunner as much as about Gibson’s work.

This part of the introduction concludes with the statement that

in an era of globalisation, Asian Americans are becoming ubiquitous in American popular culture both as producers and consumers. Globalisation … has been accompanied by intensified transnational cultural practices and cultural hybridities in societies around the world. Thus “race and its cultural meanings remain at the core of globalizing media flows and their local receptions”

This leads to the discussion of the other big issue in cyberpunk, globalisation, but it doesn’t seem to me to put the race issue to bed. Is the representation of race in cyberpunk related to globalisation or to the triumph of multiculturalism as a cultural model, if not for everyone in the west, at least for young people from a certain cultural elite? And what does that tell us about the kinds of stereotypes that will enter the work of a man who had never visited Japan when he wrote the book? Will they be stereotypes based on outdated cultural models of Japan, or will they be a combination of the various Oriental things he saw in multicultural Vancouver (including shops, Asian cinema, visits to chinatown, art exhibitions etc.) and the hugely influential Bladerunner? If so, the stereotypes Gibson is building are being built not only from a distant, imagined Orient, but from an Orient which has plonked itself on his doorstep, modified itself to suit a relaxed, multicultural, very Western city, and presented itself to him full of late 70s and early 80s vigour.

If so, what we’re seeing here is the production of stereotypes in a very different way to that envisaged by Said in Orientalism. We’re also seeing, perhaps, the production of images of the Orient in a sub-cultural genre that may not actually be influenced very strongly by the insecurities and biasses of that great producer of modern popular culture, America. Perfect material for the development of a theory of post-modern Orientalism. But our author hasn’t mentioned multiculturalism or paid much attention to Gibson’s Canadian heritage – so is he going to miss this chance when he approaches the topic in more detail?

Only time will tell…

In my previous post I mentioned stumbling across an analysis of cyberpunk and orientalism, which interests me for a lot of reasons, and I’ve subsequently decided that since I’m living in the shadow of the zaibatsu without a job, maybe it’s time I embarked on a shady criminal information-hacking project, so I’m going to try and read through the thesis I found and draw together some kind of themes or conclusions from the tangled mess that is postmodern critique.

… So to start with I thought I’d do a survey of what is already available on the internet about cyberpunk and postmodernism. According to this (awesomely brief) description,

markers of postmodernism recurring in cyberpunk include: the commodification of culture, the invasive development of information technology, a decentering and fragmentation of the “individual”; and a blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “popular” culture.

which maybe helps to pin down why cyberpunk is considered to have such strong links to postmodernism, and also to nihilism – which, incidentally, I didn’t realise had a whole branch of academic theory devoted to it, primarily stemming from the work of Baudrillard. I don’t want to pursue the discussion of nihilism too far though because I find it seems to get incomprehensible very rapidly. Interestingly though, the intersection of cyberpunk, nihilism – which posits an absence of external morality – and postmodernism, with its reputed objection to “truth”[1], draws in a lot of young christians. For example, this blog describes some common misconceptions about postmodernism held by its christian critics, and maybe helps to show what postmodernism is not. Obviously, those whose religion is based on a single text are going to have some big issues with postmodernism, which is all about criticising the relationship between “the text”[2] and “truth”.

Modern feminism has also found an interest in cyberpunk, as a fictional representation of the liberating effect of technology for modern women. This is briefly discussed here, with again some reference to the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway.  This could be interesting if it led me back to Haraway, whose work I struggled with many years ago with the help of a friend. I hope it doesn’t, though, because I’m largely not up to dealing with her language… But I don’t think I’ll be pursuing any further feminist involvement in cyberpunk in and of itself (though I may stumble across some in time), because I only have limited time and my main concern is the Orientalist part[4].

The thesis I have started reading states its perspective on the importance of cyberpunk for postmodernism in the introduction:

Cyberpunk’s postmodern scene, the flow of people, goods, information and power across international boundaries, is theorized in Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late or third stage multinational capitalism, fully explicated in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). Importantly, Jameson finds cyberpunk to be a significant manifestation of this, the “supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). … Moreover, this postmodern scene, a global array of disjunctive flows, specifically encompasses Japan: the multinationals, for example, are depicted as Japanese zaibatsu.

I’m inclined to agree with most of this position, though I’m going to skip over the supreme importance bit to see what our resident theorist has to say about Gibson’s view of Japan from the perspective of Orientalism, which he goes on to say will try to

“get beyond the reified polarities of East versus West” and in a “concrete way attempt to understand the heterogeneous and often odd developments” (Culture and Imperialism 41). By exploring a number of particular theoretical positions and terminologies, my intention is to work toward highlighting the dynamic of reflexivity inherent in postmodern orientalism.

(The quotes here are quotes of Said). This paragraph is easier understood in the context of the abstract, in which our resident theorist explains that his view of “postmodern orientalism” describes

uneven, paradoxical, interconnected and mutually implicated cultural transactions at the threshold of East-West relations. The thesis explores this by first examining cyberpunk’s unremarked relationship with countercultural formations (rock music), practices (drugs) and manifestations of Oriental otherness in popular culture.

This distinguishes the modern cyberpunk narrative of the orient from that of previous centuries, described by Said, in which the imaginative process is entirely one way – western writers and academics taking parts of the orient that appealed to them to form their own pastiche of cultural and aesthetic ideals of the orient which suit their own stereotypes; and then using these to bolster a definition of the West in opposition to an imagined Orient. In the cyberpunk world, characterised by postmodern orientalism, the Orient is actively engaging with, challenging or subverting the images which western writers and academics form of the East, and importing its own distorted images of the West, in a form of postmodern cultural exchange.

This cultural exchange is very interesting to me, and has been a topic of rumination for me on my other blog ever since I came to Japan. It’s clear that the West “dreams” the orient[5], not seeing much of what is really happening here; but at the same time the Orient has its own fantasies of the west, which have become increasingly influential in the west as the power of Japanese and Chinese media enables them to project their own images of the West back to it[6]. Both parts of the world also have their dreams of their own identity, and often these definitions are constructed at least partially in contrast to their dual opposite; but recently, with increased cultural exchange, it’s possible to see these identities becoming more diverse (at least in the Orient) as the “Other” hemisphere becomes less alien and the distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” blurs. I am interested to see if this phenomenon is sufficiently identifiable as to be described by a theory of postmodern orientalism, and that’s why I’m reading this thesis…

So, that’s the outline of what we’re aiming for. Strap yourselves in kids. We’ve taken the Blue pill…

[1] I think this is a misreading of postmodernist theory, which mainly seems to argue that the way we interpret truth is coloured by our cultural and linguistic assumptions. There’s an excellent example of this in the paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on sterotypical male-female roles”, Emily Martin, Signs(1991): 16(3), 485-501.

[2] “the text” is like a classic postmodern bullshit bingo cliche, but I actually think it’s a really useful word for catching the broad sense of what post-modernists[3] talk about when they do their critical analyses

[3] I’m really quite certain that I routinely confuse post-modernists and deconstructuralists, (deconstructionists?), but I don’t care because it’s their fault not mine. Nobody confuses a statistician and a mathematician, do they?

[4] Though actually I doubt one would have to google very far to find that Orientalism as a concept would have been significantly boosted by better consideration of gender relations…

[5] mostly, in the case of Japan, through a series of wet dreams or nightmares, but still…

[6] Consider, for example, the West as presented to the West by Miyazaki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or in Full Metal Alchemist[7]

[7] I just want to point out here that if I was going to be a proper academic wanker like Said I would present these names in untranslated Japanese, on the assumption that you, dear reader, can just read everything, or that if you can’t you’re a worthless loser who doesn’t deserve to know what I’m talking about. Aren’t I nice?

After the dispute over my opinions about the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk role-playing, I did a little more digging and found that this element of cyberpunk is not exactly considered unique. I also discovered that, rather unsurprisingly, cyberpunk is a rich field of theoretical endeavour. I discovered a cyberpunk course at the peer to peer university (!?) which includes explicit analysis of the nihilistic elements of cyberpunk, along with some interesting discussion of the narrative components of the style. The conclusion of this post is that nihilism is a fundamental component of the genre (and some nice hat tips to the theoretical concept of nihilism are identified in The Matrix).

The P2PU course on cyberpunk also includes links to a lot of open access journal articles about cyberpunk, some of which could be worth reading.

Finally, I found an interesting-looking article on Cyberpunk and Orientalism, which might give an interesting insight into some of the things I’ve noticed before in Cyberpunk – particularly the 90s wave of Gibson et al – which seems to have a heavy degree of romanticisation of the far East. I have my suspicions about Said’s critique of Orientalism, but it does provide an interesting platform from which to analyse Western opinions of Asia, so I’m going to give this essay a go – even though it’s a PhD thesis so probably therefore hideously difficult to read – and I may provide a few interpretations of it on a future post. How’s that for taking one for the team?