Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mindplayers


Cadigan's Mindplayers was an interesting beast. For most of the slim volume, I found myself bored and my mind wandering as Cadigan's plotting was less than optimal. The protagonist bounces from incident to incident, with little connecting them all. I found all of the "gee-whiz" science fictional gadgets and strange "future" social customs and mores to be tiresome and, frankly, lifted from Philip K. Dick. A couple male characters "casually" mention that they have had husbands in the past or present; "gang" is a commonly accepted term for a marriage involving more than three individuals; anarchic retreats emulate hippy communes, which seems especially Dickian (is that the word we're using?). I grew restless with the book and finished two in the meantime.

However, a connective plot strand grabbed my attention. Jerry Wirerammer is this book's version of a drug dealer, selling illicit drugs that simulate, temporarily, insanity or schizophrenia ("madcaps"). He is arrested and does time for this illegal activity, but when released, has no income; he turns to companies, some sketchy, and sells off his memories for people to experience or internalize for pleasure. However, his strategy of selling to multiple companies turns on him, forcing him into more desperate measures, such as selling almost complete duplicates of his entire selfhood. In his last appearance, the protagonist is unsure if the Jerry Wirerammer she's talking to is the original or if the original has been lost forever.

This certainly seems the most Philip K. Dick-esque of all elements in the novel. The reification of selfhood, its malleability and ephemeral qualities were obsessions with Dick. However, Cadigan's use of this concept is less "gee-whiz" or horrifying than Dick's treatment and more solid characterization for her protagonist, Allie. Mindplayers is not really about "cyberpunk" plotting. Rather, the novel is intensely, almost myopically focused on Allie's emotional maturity and her relationship to her own mind. Using an episodic structure, Cadigan bounces odd incidents off Allie, all of which slowly shape her and change her, which is definitely refreshing. Considering my oft-repeated complaints about realism, characters, and the prison of narrative, Cadigan's novel stands in stark relief from other examples of the genre.

On the same tact, some periodization would be helpful here. Cyberpunk, we might remember, is formed as a shaggy movement in the early 80s (Blade Runner in 1982, Neuromancer in '84). Already by '87, cyberpunk has become a victim of its own success. While the subgenre was originally anti-capitalist, or more accurately, anti-corporatist, its success meant an evacuation of those politics; subsequent imitators jettison the radicalism for a more palatable and commercially friendly message ("tech is bad in the wrong hands"). Cadigan had already made her mark on the scene with some impactful short stories, but her first novel wasn't published until 1987. Some critics have pointed to Mindplayers as either the final novel of cyberpunk or the first of postcyberpunk. It's certainly hard to categorize due to its disinterest in the tropes and aesthetics of cyberpunk (noir/detective plot structure, garish neon/Eastern influences) and to its ambiguity vis-a-vis technology.

Cyberpunk, many have argued, including the great Samuel R. Delany, is intrinsically optimistic about technology. The new tech that cyberpunk seems to champion (cyberspace, virtual reality, cybernetics) make material our previously immaterial connection to data and more abstractly, information. Delany compares cyberpunk's depiction of cyberspace as akin to a "noosphere," a repository of all possible knowledges. Cyberpunk proposes that technology is the only possible avenue for accessing this noosphere and this is assumed to be a prima facie "good" thing to do. Cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer and its derivatives literalized that which was previously metaphor. The deployment of metaphor is distancing: it requires the audience an additional cognitive step to parse meaning; cyberspace, on the other hand, takes that which is metaphor (virtuality) and turns it into actuality. For example, when Allie misunderstands another character's pronouncement, from "altered states of consciousness" to "altered snakes of consequence" the cyberspace in Mindplayers provides a literal snake eating its own tail for Allie to see.

A bit of Deleuze and Guattari then will help (or obfuscate depending on how well I can translate their esotericism. In A Thousand Plateaus, D and G lay out their toolkit, explicating the rhizome and its multiple possibilities of entrance. The world is not organized into discrete strata such as a "biosphere" or a "noosphere" but rather a "Mecanosphere," a plane of consistency (D and G were really big on "planes") in which there is no metaphor, nothing is "like" something else; it is that thing. It is a system of self-organization, deriving from complexity theory and non-linear mathematics (don't ask me, I have no idea) which involves a mechanism for self-organization called double-articulation. Here, they draw on Foucault who highlights that which is "seeable" and that which is "sayable." The articulation of the strata, say for example, cyberspace, is never without discursively relying on the corresponding and concomitant strata. If cyberspace is a mechanism for self-organization, then its articulation relies on a whole mess of other "sayable" strata, such as "space," "cyber," "metaphor," etc etc etc. There are horizontal "parastrata" (technology) and vertical "epistrata" (English language, mathematics) that the strata draws on for meaning.

What matters here is D and G's use of the mechanism. They call this plane of consistency an abstract machine. This requires a bit further of unpacking, of course (what doesn't in D and G?). A machine, the authors define as a system of interruptions and flow. A human body is a classic D and G machine: the mouth, the eyes, all open and close, interrupting the flow, both out and in. An abstract machine, then, is a system comprised of smaller machines that interrupt and flow, but is abstract in nature. For example, a disciplinary technology such as the school or the prison is an abstract machine as it is composed of smaller machines working in conjunction. Cyberspace is an abstract machine, with its constituent elements including technology (1 is flow, 0 is interruption) and humanity. Cyberpunk literalizes the intersection of organic and inorganic; a new abstract machine is composed from technology (computers, cords, wires, electronics) and humanity (neurons, synapses, thought). Cyberpunk is optimistic that this abstract machine of cyberspace, of human-machine interaction allows access to more knowledge and thus more power. Even if that power is corrupted by other abstract machines (eg. The State, corporations, faciality). The abstract machine as an articulation allows us to understand how there is really no starting point and no ending point; there is only the flow, only the becoming. Cyberspace, then, is not a beginning nor an end point of knowledge, nor is it an unbreachable impasse between organic and inorganic.

Consider, then, if we can return to Mindplayers, that Wirerammer becomes a collapse of organic and inorganic. Frequently, Wirerammer is held up as this warning; while Allie's job, mindplaying, a technologically oriented form of psychoanalysis, what with its literalization of metaphor and subconscious, is depicted as mostly positive, Jerry's plight is tragic almost, an example of the commodification of personhood. I'd rather we conceptualize Wirerammer not as a logical outcome of the increased rapidity of technology's encroachment on humanity, as outcome implies a linear progression. Instead, we might apprehend Wirerammer as the collapse of the Cartesian dualism that pervades science fiction. He is the deterritorialization of binary systems. He loses his selfhood, his originality, and we might mourn this, but secretly, quite cleverly, Cadigan implies that this originality never existed in the first place.

Allie is a mirror image of Jerry in that while he goes further down a road of illegality, Allie becomes increasingly responsible and respectable (she trains for a job, acquires a career, marries a cis man, fulfilling the heteronormative metanarrative required of women in the 21st century). However, Allie is, as we've mentioned, formed by her interactions with other characters, incidents, machines, both literal and figurative. Her selfhood is constructed by interfacing with machines that interface with other machines ie humans. In a way, Allie and Jerry are the double-articulation of an abstract machine that is the collapse of the organic and the inorganic. Allie is a strata that works only in conjunction with its parastrata (people she meets) and epistrata (language, metaphor).

The effect that Jerry and others have on Allie is literalized, as with all cyberpunk metaphors, in cyberspace. Spectres of past encounters haunt Allie, to the point where she even questions if her selfhood actually exists a priori her interactions. Here, we see another concept from Deleuze: the assemblage. I won't bother recapitulating the pedantic definitions of assemblage but suffice it to say that Allie's character conceptualizes a becoming, a constant vibrancy of matter that only exists in relation to others. Cyberspace, then, literalizes this relational permanency of identity, as cyberspace seems to only literalize. Recalling that cyberspace is a zone of thought, a noosphere, it also only exists in relation to the strata of "reality." Epistemologically speaking, cyberspace and reality do not compete for the top spot in some hierarchy of zones; as virtual reality is just as real to human senses as reality, then the two zones are parallel.

One of science fiction's favourite tropes, so perfectly and lovingly satirized by South Park, is losing a grip on which reality is which. In an episode from the 18th season, Cartman pranks Butters by convincing him that Butters has become trapped in virtual reality, confusing it with reality. So begins a hilarious series of matryoshka dolls, with each "layer" of reality being revealed as virtual. South Park plays into this logic up until the very end, when the animation cuts to a live action shot of actors playing the main characters, calling attention to the "virtuality" of animation and even to the construction of the show itself.

While Mindplayers doesn't tumble all over itself into rabbit holes with regards to the confusion of virtuality, the novel does confidently suggest that conceptualizing discrete zones of reality is counterproductive for personal relations. Allie's job involves helping people come to realizations, like a therapist, but by travelling into their minds and playing with their thoughts. In this way, Mindplayers eschews the typical cyerpunkian distrust of technology (that simultaneously and paradoxically fetishizes it). The text keeps the actual tech at a remove, never really describing in lurid hard sf fashion what the tech entails. Instead, we're left with short descriptions of Allie lugging around machines that probably look something like an EKG monitor. The tech, then, facilitates the collapse of barriers between zones, between people, pushing them into modes of becoming (rather than being). Even still, the "agency" of the tech is minimized in favour of skills, or perhaps more accurately, the development of skills (as this is a Bildungsroman). The becoming-human impact is far more valuable to than the tech, though I should be careful not to erase the importance of tech in the text. This is, after all, still a science fiction novel. Mindplayers is, refreshingly, more interested in characters than gee-whiz technological fetishism, though this aspect still rears its head. It's also confidently liberated from the generic constraints of plot, bereft of typical cyberpunk narrative clich├ęs. Perhaps this is why some have periodized the text as either the last cyberpunk novel or the first postcyberpunk novel.

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