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The Postmodern Imaginary in William Gibson's Neuromancer

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2001
pp. 887-909 | 10.1353/mfs.2001.0100

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 887-909

Much of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer is centered around cyberspace, or the matrix as it is alternatively called, the representational innovation for which his work has become famous. It is first defined for the reader via the narration of a children's educational program: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights receding . . ." (67). The concept of cyberspace is valuable as a narrative strategy because it is able to represent "unthinkable complexity," to gain a cognitive purchase upon the welter of data. It is a response to what Fredric Jameson has called "the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects" (Postmodernism 44). Pointing toward his troubled call for cognitive mapping, the spatial metaphor Jameson invokes here is richly suggestive; for, in trying to think the totality, the postmodern novelist encounters a more immediate problematic, which, as Jameson notes, operates as an analogue of the totality, and that is the metamorphosis of space itself. This metamorphosis "has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world."

In this respect, we may see cyberspace as an attempt at a postmodern cartography; that is, as a representational strategy for domesticating what Jameson terms "postmodern hyperspace" (Postmodernism 44). Central to this enterprise is, as Gibson's reference to the "city lights" above suggests, a recognition of the change in, and thus a recodification of, contemporary urban experience. As Paul Patton notes, "Images of the city play a crucial role in accounts of the postmodern condition. As a matter of course, these accounts include as one of their essential moments a description of the experience of contemporary urban life" (112). Indeed, the individual's relationship with, and navigation of, metropolitan space has, as Raymond Williams argues, occupied a privileged position in the thematic hierarchy of literary materials since the Romantic era. In Williams's reading, the city always presents itself as a space of sublimity -- from the literal strangeness of crowds in Wordsworth to the impenetrable fogs of Dickens and the dark and dizzying streets of Conrad -- the metropolis is never completely knowable, and therefore the individual's relationship to it is always monadic and alienated, even as it revels in a certain vital exoticism produced by this estrangement. Literary attempts to tame the concrete jungle vary, but one worth noting in this context is, as Williams observes, "the new figure of the urban detective":

In Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories there is a recurrent image of the penetration by an isolated rational intelligence of a dark area of crime which is to be found in the otherwise (for specific physical reasons, as in the London fogs, but also for social reasons, in that teeming, mazelike, often alien area) impenetrable city. This figure has persisted in the urban "private eye" (as it happens, an exact idiom for the basic position in consciousness) in cities without the fogs. (42)

The very name of Neuromancer's protagonist -- Case -- signposts an inheritance from this tradition of urban rationalism that Scott Bukatman, among others, has located as a specific relationship with "the alienated spatialities of Chandler" (142). Echoing Friedrich Engels's comments about Manchester crowds, Jameson proposes that the work of Raymond Chandler is subtended by a sense of spatial disjunction:

[T]he form of Chandler's books reflects an initial American separation of people from each other, their need to be linked by some external force (in this case the detective) if they are ever to be fitted together as parts of the same picture puzzle. And this separation is projected out onto space itself: no matter how crowded the street in question, the various solitudes never really...

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