Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson's SnowCrash
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Hacking the Brainstem:
Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash

Metaphysics in Cyberspace

In William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, Case the barbarian hacker confronts Wintermute/Neuromancer, the new artificial intelligence he has helped to create, as a transcendent entity. “‘So you God now? . . . You running the show?” he asks Wintermute. Wintermute doesn’t deny it, he simply replies that he is now in contact with other beings like himself far out in the galaxy. The theme of meeting God in the computer is also taken up in other cybernetic fictions: In Foucault’s Pendulum (1986), Umberto Eco’s vision of Abulafia the transcendent computer is modeled on “routines” for cabalistic manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet (specifically, the letters of God’s Name) intended by their thirteenth-century originator—Abraham Abulafia—to merge the “user” with Godhead. A. A. Attanasio’s earlier SF novel Radix forcefully imagines a computer-god who goes mad after achieving divinity. In Vineland (1991), Thomas Pynchon portrays a cyborg device—the Puncutron Machine—providing a technologically assisted means to transcendent vision. 1

Our centuries-long romance with technology, especially technologies for abstracting different faculties of the mind like language, the alphabet, mathematics, the telephone, and so on—produced by the urgent compulsion to exteriorize our nerve net, to [End Page 537] achieve intimacy, to broaden the bandwidth of telepathic communications, to control and influence other minds—has already cyberspatialized us. This coevolution of human brain and communications tech has reached critical proportions in postmodernism, as we seem poised to leap across to some new cognitive-cultural state, heralded in near-apocalyptic imaginings about cyberspace and virtual reality. Yet, the emergence of metaphysical views on the postmodern literary scene is still surprising and represents a new turn, which this paper seeks to place in context.

The literature of cyberspace, a sheerly technological artifact, almost always envisions VR as giving rise to extrarational experiences and effects, including communication with metaphysical godhead. At the simplest level, mere transcendence in cyberspace may flow from the way cyberspace will reorient the mind to the experience of sensuous information BODILESSLY—that is, bypassing the normal route for sensuous experience and initiating it directly in that infinitely plastic sensorium, the brain/mind: that homuncular body without an organ. Cyberspace already transcends the physical “meat” body by creating a simulated “meta” body in the brain and communicating with it directly via electrical implants (the details of which are never explained, but which Stanford neurophysiologists are already beginning to explore) 2 —that is, in very literal terms, it is meta-physical. Cyborg hackers take the next evolutionary step that was begun in Daedalus’s dream of flight to become electronic angels, freed from the laws of physics. For Jules Verne, new modes of transportation represented a conceptual breakthrough, as humans were liberated from their restrictive notions of their earthbound bodies in space and time. In the 1950s and 1960s, space [End Page 538] flight itself presented the vision of a new, paradigmatic relationship to the universe: “Space flight was the supreme myth of SF. Humanity, no longer Earthbound, would become somehow transcendent. The 50s and 60s were the romantic heyday of this myth.” 3 But by the 1980s, with the poetics of the space program reduced to the pedestrian (golf on the moon) and mundane (“shuttle” flights in near-orbit), and with the explosion of cybernetic concerns in the culture, focusing particularly on the brain-computer link, a new mythology emerges. Gibson’s striking descriptions of cyberspace in Neuromancer emphasize the “bodiless exultation” it gives the user, a soaring through metaspace, where the same mythology is reinscribed not in outer space but in Kantian inner space.

Still, SF and postmodernism here come into conflict on the issue of metaphysics. Postmodernism has traditionally—if it is not altogether too soon to talk about a “traditional postmodernism”—framed radical critiques of contemporary culture that reject essentializing viewpoints (other than the impossibility of an essential viewpoint). So it is a bit astonishing to survey postmodern cybernetic or cyberpunk fiction and find these metaphysical points of view expressed so frankly.

At the same time, postmodern fiction is also generally characterized by a critique of rationalism...