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The Business of Cyberpunk: Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson
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The Business of Cyberpunk:
Symbolic Economy and Ideology in William Gibson

It is immaterial what consciousness starts to do on its own

—Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Ask your friendly Hosaka pocket computer for a five-minute précis on William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and it will probably reference several treatments of cyberpunk’s place within the canon of science fiction as well as commentaries on the novel’s representations of the vexed human-machine interface and their damaging implications for the onto-epistemologies of humanism. 1 Leaving aside issues of genre, literary influence, and tradition, it is the latter critical focus on the human-machine interface in the novel that I will address here—specifically, its portrayal of the flows of capital and the ideological mechanisms that construct the posthumanist “cyborg” in the first place. Far from inhabiting a “postideological” universe, the cyborg is best understood as an effect of advanced capitalism’s restructuring of modes and relations of production and its corresponding transformations in ideological reproduction. With some exceptions (including commentary by Pam Rosenthal, Andrew Ross, and Larry McCaffery 2), critics often situate Gibson’s work [End Page 509] within the context of “postindustrialism” and occasionally praise it for its depictions of “late capitalism,” without defining these terms or saying exactly how his work embodies or works through them. While it is, perhaps, out of a healthy skepticism of “vulgar” base/ superstructure models of economics and culture that leftist critics are wary of making deterministic claims about the connections between macroeconomic transformations and the appearance of the cyborg, the social and economic conditions of the production of cyborg life nonetheless remain to be articulated. 3 reading of Gibson that is informed by an awareness of the historical processes of capital’s tendencies to crisis and modes of alleviating (or rescheduling) these tendencies, and that locates technoscience within the coercive laws of the market, suggests some of the conditions of cyborg existence and indicates the economic and ideological significance of the development of “cyberspace.” Gibson’s fiction, read in this way, constructs a mirror of existing large-scale techno-social relations, providing the cultural critic with the means for critiquing those relations.

What is required in such a reading, however, is not a simple appeal to an economic base; Gibson’s cyborgs—such as Case, the “console cowboy,” and Molly, the “razor-girl”—are not mere reflections of underlying economic processes, however much they may be conditioned by them and however little they look like “well-developed” fictional characters. The cyborg, as a trope for the dissolution of the Cartesian subject, is symptomatic of consistent and isomorphic shifts in all areas of socio-symbolic activity, all the “modes of symbolization,” in Jean-Joseph Goux’s terms—economic, subjective, philosophical. 4 Gibson’s significance, for my purposes, lies neither in his prose style (which revolutionized SF in the eighties), nor in his description of humanity’s disappearance into technology, but in his novels’ staging of the modes of symbolization characteristic of a technologically advanced capitalist society. If, as I suggest, [End Page 510] the cyborg is the “consciousness” of the techno-capitalist dream, then a corollary claim can be made about Gibson’s fiction: it is a dream of late-capitalist ideology. And, far from being reason for leftist critics to dismiss Gibson, this is what should draw our critical attention. As Slavoj Zizek argues, “The only way to break the power of our ideological dream is to confront the Real of our desire which announces itself in this dream.” 5 Zizek suggests, after Lacan, that it is only in the dream that we approach real awakening, the Real of our desire. This, he says, is not an idea of generalized illusion; Lacan argues that there is always a hard kernel, a leftover that cannot be reduced to a universal play of illusory mirroring: “the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. . . . It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy- framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.” 6 What is at stake, then, is the analytical benefit of taking Gibson...