Commentary on Cyberpunk and Romanticism

Commentary on Cyberpunk and Romanticism

On 10 Feb 1997 Alan Liu wrote to NASSR-List:

Another addition to the thread: Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Readers familiar with the cyberpunk generation of SF writers will know Stephenson's previous Snow Crash, one of the most brilliant, vigorous, picaresque, and influential of the type. In Snow Crash, as in cyberpunk generally, the purpose of networked information technology and all its street-level accoutrements (including the fact that the very notion of "street" culture is altered irrevocably by the insertion into the cultural field of virtual space) is to serve as the allegorical foundation for a near-future world dominated by neo-corporate social structures. Functioning to the exclusion of family, village, nation, and other socialities, such structures of human life are the great "virtual"experience. The Diamond Age is another beautifully rendered and detailed imagination of such a world, though more interested in nanotechnology than cybertechnology and more gentle and erudite in tone than picaresque. The use of the Romantics, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, is clear. But the real heart of the book is the "clave" or "phyle" (corporate clan) of the Vickys--who style their life and ideology after the Victorian age. The plot of the novel places the world view of the Vickys into play against the world of a powerful post-colonial China in ways that make for delicious ironies in the history and meaning of imperialism (including a neo- or retro-Boxer Rebellion). In general, the whole notion of setting Victorian culture in play against the grain of postindustrial and global culture is a delicious one.

Both Snow Crash and Diamond Age center on strong female characters. Of particular interest for literary scholars such as ourselves is the fact that the latter focuses on young orphan Nell and her primer--a fantastic, interactive, all-books-in-one "book" (a computer-driven artifact whose paper and ink re-fashion themselves nanotechnologically as the child reads and grows) that is the surrogate for father and mother both. In this regard, the technology of Diamond Age is curiously retro. The real interest is not in new tech at all, but in the use of new tech to reimagine the place of literacy in a world where the old institutional habitus of literacy (linked to family, school, nation) requires rehabilitation. Is the neo-corporate world of "knowledge work" a place of literacy?, the novel essentially asks, and solicits us to imagine that the answer is "yes, it can be if we are brave enough." Not brave new world, then, but brave Victorian world emancipated from the original Victorian period's faith that it was at the top of the global power hierarchy.

That, in any case, is the main idea. I have some doubts about how theneo-retro colonial situation is worked out at the novel's end--and aboutwhat the novel actually ends up saying about the neo-Third World and about women and children (as in the "mouse" army of little Chinese girls,survivors of infanticide, who intervene on Nell's behalf in the neo-BoxerRebellion). But the novel--like Simmons' books--belongs on the short listof literate SF for our particular field of scholarship.

Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely for those who have read my work on romantic historicism), science fiction and Romantic literature have been the two great literacy adventures of my life. The first (from the "Tom Swift" series on) was what tutored me in English when I immigrated to the U.S. in 1959; it taught me, I should like to think, that there is a romance of literacy, of learning the techne of language (for which general techne in sf serves as the allegory) as a passport to learning a culture. The second, I guess, has taught me to imagine the past as technically as possible--which is, strangely, also to say as romantically as possible. It is not for nothing that sf has been called "future history."

SF in the academy, of course, has a very declasse effect. We tend toassociate it connotatively less with "lyrical ballads" (popular in a sensewe have come to cherish since the Romantics) than with the "craving forextraordinary incident . . . frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse" that W.derided. Technological supernaturalism, we think, is not quite the same as natural supernaturalism. Idiot boys, yes. Johhny Mnemonic, no. The difference, of course, is the intervention of "mass culture" in the notionof "popular culture." SF inhabits a pulp medium that has a commoditystatus not prominent in discussions of lyrical ballads. What is the difference between the sublime of the Boat-Stealing episode in The Prelude and that of cyberspace in William Gibson's Neuromancer (cf., the opening of my Representations essay on "Local Transcendence")? The difference is that Gibson indulges himself in the exploration of commodity culture with all its declasse representational genres (including sci-fi, detective novel, gangster novel, Western, etc.). Or rather, and this is why I signalize cyberpunk in contemporary sf: the latter explores post commodity culture (the culture of products for which the "street" imagines new, secondary uses) in order to rethink the notion of commodity. Commodity culture is re-explored from the perspective of a new producer culture (i.e., the new worlds of the corporate societies). The "film of familiarity" is stripped away from ordinary commodity culture, in other words, to reveal that the very notion of commodity is what prevents us from seeing that the real magic is now occurring all around us in the habitus of the producer, and of those street-wise creative consumers (crypto-"producers" or "prosumers" in Alvin Toffler's sense) who resist them by imagining new uses for products. This strikes me as essentially proximate to W's mission in LB--i.e., to the reason he founds his work on the imaginary life of the yeoman small-farm production unit as opposed to the "accumulation of men in cities" that "produces" the "craving for extraordinary incident."

In short, I would recommend that the best way to take advantage of popular adaptations of Romanticism in our classes (especially but not exclusively SF) is not to duck but to confront the declasse nature of the adaptations. This has more to teach us about Romanticism, and about contemporary culture, than any mere analogy between Romanticism and a contemporary work.


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