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Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in William Gibson's Neuromancer
Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in
William Gibson's Neuromancer
Kihan Lee *
II. The Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy
In a 1950 paper entitled “Computer, Machinery, and Intelligence,”
Alan Turing, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician who was
instrumental in the cracking of the German Enigma code during the
Second World War, proposed a rather interesting experiment, which has since been recognized as the “Turing Test.”1 The gist of the hypothetical experiment is as follows: via a teletype machine, a human examiner engages in a dialogue with two subjects (one is human and the other, a machine). In the course of the verbal exchange the examiner must determine which of the two subjects is actually a machine. Turing's primary premise was that ‘thinking machines’ may * Professor of English Language and Literature, Myongji University Alan Turing is the namesake of the Turing Registry, introduced in Gibson's Neuromancer as an international regulatory agency dedicated to monitoring the intelligence of artificial intelligence.
32 Journal of British＆American Studies No.14. 2006 in due course of development become so advanced and sophisticated as to render them virtually indistinguishable from actual human beings.
However, one notes that what is conspicuously absent in Turing's technology-based discourse is the ontological question of the role of our physical bodies in the determination of our innate identity as human beings.
In discussing the Turing Test in her highly influential 1999 study entitled How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles astutely distinguishes between what she terms the ‘enacted body’ (i.e.
embodied identity) and the ‘represented body’ (i.e. disembodied identity). Hayles' point is that the Turing Test, albeit a treatise on the projected development of computers and of artificial intelligence, speaks volumes about the ramifications of the embodiment/ disembodiment dichotomy in how we define ourselves as human beings in this modern computer-mediated world, a Baudrillardian universe of simulacra in which the separation between the ‘spectacle’ and the ‘real’ is no longer attainable nor meaningful.
Nowhere is the notion of the simulacra more vividly represented and enacted than in the artificial venue of cyberspace, defined by Adam Roberts as “the computer-generated environment into which human beings can enter through a computer or a virtual-reality suit” (167). For many of us who almost daily 'bare our hearts and souls' communicating with faceless others on electronic bulletin boards and the like, cyberspace has become much more than a nifty technological development. As Simon J. Williams reminds us, The computer network provides opportunities for people to get together with considerable personal intimacy and proximity Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in William Gibson's Neuromancer without the physical limitations of geography, time zones or conspicuous social status. (80) Williams goes on to admonish, however, that whereas the body traditionally represented personal identity and individuality, “cyberspace simply 'bracket' the physical appearance/presence either by omitting or by 'simulating' corporeal immediacy.”2 In this computer mediated world in which alteration and modification of personal identity has become the norm rather than the exception, we confront a perplexing, and also rather troubling, question: Who are we in cyberspace, given the apparent dichotomy between our embodied selves in the corporeal world and our disembodied selves in cyberspace? This is the question with which I attempted a rereading of William Gibson's Neuromancer, arguably the most significant work to date in the cyberpunk genre. I shall argue that Gibson was a visionary not only in his prophetically accurate depiction of a ‘possible’ future but also in his foregrounding of the philosophical issue of the relationship between the body and self identity in cyberspace.
II. The Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy Scholars and aficionados of science fiction tend to disagree as to The stand-in personae invariably employed on electronic bulletin boards and chat rooms, as well as our illustrative representation of self in the form of avatars, exemplify ways in which our identities are constantly and consciously manipulated in the venue of cyberspace.
34 Journal of British＆American Studies No.14. 2006 who first coined the term 'cyberspace'; however, they readily concur that the term first began to be accepted and widely circulated with the 1984 publication and subsequent popularity of William Gibson's Neuromancer. Samuel Delany's claim that “Cyberpunk is protech” notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that, according to a popular lore, Williams composed his 'high tech' novel on a dilapidated manual typewriter and was at the time for all means and purposes computer illiterate. Gibson confesses, “I have no grasp of how computers really work” but adds “My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize it” (qtd.
in Olsen, William Gibson 3).
In the novel Williams plots the landscape of cyberspace as “silver phosphenes boiling in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like film compiled from random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information” (52). While Gibson's depiction of cyberspace bears an uncanny resemblance to Baudrillard's description of hyperreality as “a glittering profusion of images, signs, and codes,” it is nevertheless vague and characteristically nondescriptive. In Gibson's defense (and perhaps in Baudrillard's as well), the notion of cyberspace, even two decades after the publication of Neuromancer, is continually subject to redefinition as new and more innovative computer technologies become available.
As Adam Roberts reminds us, “Cyberspace itself is not a real space, but a notional space, a metaphorical space” (172). By “notional” Roberts meant that despite its manifest technical orientation, cyberspace is still very much a conceptualized abstraction, subject to our individual, or collective, desires and hopes as well as our fears and apprehensions. The eminent don of science fiction literature, Philip K.
Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in William Gibson's Neuromancer Dick once lamented, “The loss of faith in the idea of progress, in a ‘brighter tomorrow,’ extends over our whole cultural milieu” (54).
Prone as we are to fear most what we do not understand, I presumed that most of the scholarly literature on cyberspace to decry the exigency of an emerging cyber culture. To my dismay, I found most heralding the advent of a ‘brave new world’ of the expansion of human experience: For instance, Philip Agre portends, “The concept of cyberspace offered an escape...escape from limits, from oppression, from institutions, from responsibility, from reality” (149), and in the same vein, Andy Miah sees cyberspace as “worlds of infinite freedom, which transcend human subjectivity and where identity becomes no longer burdened by the prejudices of persons” (211). These views are representative of the prevalent tendency to perceive cyberspace as a viable ‘alternative reality’ of sort whereby one can effectively escape the seemingly harsh realities of the ‘real’ world.
This stratagem is evident throughout much of the novel. Even before the venue of cyberspace is properly introduced, Gibson bombards his readers with graphically vivid images of a postapocalyptic world ravaged by a global nuclear war, reminiscent of the backgrounds for Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It is a distinctively dystopian 'real' world, made palpable by decay and degeneration on a global scale: Air pollution in the metropolitan areas has gotten to the point that citizens dare not venture outside unless properly attired with filtration masks (16); the texture of the evening sky now takes on “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3); overpopulation has reduced human dwellings into diminutive cubicles cynically referred to “coffins.” 36 Journal of British＆American Studies No.14. 2006 Significantly this aura of death and degeneration is also evident in Gibson's portrayal of corporeal existence. In Gibson's dystopian world, the human body is little more than a fragile, clumsy repository for human consciousness. I concur with Vance Olsen's observation that a disturbing number of ‘human’ characters in the novel come across as little more than “highly complicated automata” (“Virtual Termites” 226). This rather disparaging image of corporeal existence is due in part to Gibson's consistent representation of the human body as being analogous to a machine, prone to disrepair and terminal failure, and as such body parts are readily replaced and/or augmented: from Ratz the bartender's stainless steel teeth and prosthesis arm, “a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic” (4) to Molly's surgically implanted mirror glasses and clawlike fingernails.
Whole multinational industries have been dedicated to “implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics” (6), and dead bodies are duly recycled so that “hearts or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger” (7). In this “age of affordable beauty” (3), the term “virgin” is reserved for those shrinking few whose body has not been surgically altered. In effect Mary Shelly's gothic vision of Frankenstein has become a reality.
The Cyberspace landscape, on the other hand, is propitiously depicted as “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void” (5), offering a kind of “consensual hallucination” (51) of something beyond the harsh realities of the corporeal existence. As Katherine Hayles observes, “The sense that the world is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in William Gibson's Neuromancer human beings is part of the impetus for the displacement of presence by pattern” (37).
During most of the novel, Henry Dorsett Case, the main protagonist, epitomizes the human urge to break free of the surly bonds of corporeal existence. Case has become, at the age of twentytwo, one of the most sought after cyberspace cowboys (i.e.
professional hackers) in the field. For Case, and others like him, dedicated to “jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (5), the body, derogatorily referred throughout the novel as “so much meat,” is merely a state of existence to be tolerated and endured until the next time cyberspace can be accessed.
The fact that Case's trade is referred to as ‘cyberspace cowboys’ is ironic in the sense that according to American western ethos, cowboys epitomized not only rugged individualism but also the adventure spirit born of stringent physical activities. Cyberspace cowboys, by virtue of their profession, exhibit a collective aversion to all things appertaining to bodily existence. Andrew M. Butler asserts that “Cyberpunk's relationship to the physical body is notoriously troubled” (158), and many works in the genre display a distinct disdain for corporeality.
Techno-centric as they are, cyberspace cowboys have come to regard such innovative and hightech gadgets such as the simstim console, through which one can vicariously share in the kinetic experiences of others, as “basically a meat toy” (54).3 One of the technological drawbacks of simstim devices is that they do not function while one is in cyberspace, a fact that lends emphasis on the mutual exclusiveness of experiences of embodiment and disembodiment.
38 Journal of British＆American Studies No.14. 2006 During a previous assignment, Case succumbs to the cardinal sin of greed and indiscretely steals from his employers, and consequently his nervous system is damaged with a wartime Russian mycotoxin, preventing him from accessing cyberspace ever again. Understandably
so, this punitive measure is for Case a fate worse than death:
For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh. (6) When Armitage, a front man for the AI Wintermute, approaches Case with a proposition to have his damaged nervous system repaired so that he can break into the Tessier-Ashpool corporate computer matrix, Case is only too eager to make a pact with the devil if only for the opportunity to return to cyberspace, “his distanceless home, his country” (52). Armitage's claim that “we scraped you up from the gutter” (46) is not far from the mark, because, as a drug addict and petty hustler, Case had degenerated into a mere ‘shell’ of his former self since his nerves have been burned out.4 During his first dry run in
cyberspace after his operation, Case is overcome by emotions:
“Somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face” (52). However, one must note that there is something unwholesome, or even morbid, about Case's yearning to reenter cyberspace: Douglas Keller notes that Lance Olsen suggests that the name ‘Case.’ appropriately signifies the character's dilemma of being ‘encased’ in the shell of his body (William Gibson 83).
Embodiment/Disembodiment Dichotomy in William Gibson's Neuromancer his craving is not unlike that of “striving for religious transference” or “the frenzied need of drug addicts” (310). Similarly, Molly, retained to serve as body guard and ‘muscle woman’ for Case during his mission, remarks, “I saw you stroking that Sendai; man, it was pornographic” (47).