A Global Neuromancer
July 1, 2015 1:56 PM   Subscribe

"I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture. But it is a literary construction we tend to believe in; and, like the concept of immaterial labor, there are certainly historical reasons for its appearance at the dawn of postmodernity which greatly transcend the technological fact of computer development or the invention of the Internet." - Fredric Jameson looks back on Neuromancer by William Gibson
posted by jammy (218 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Its publication in the Orwellian year will seem ironic and laden with symbolism only for those who think Orwell has remained a classic, or that he had anything to do with science fiction or reflected any serious political thought.

"Also, George Eliot wasn't really a man, and Hemingway wound up shooting himself."
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:00 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm only three sentences in and I already disagree with every one of his assertions. Hmm.
posted by gwint at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


This guy is aware that it a was referred to a consensual mass hallucination right?

I love cyberspace.
posted by sio42 at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm only three sentences in and I already disagree with every one of his assertions

I'm not sure he read it too carefully. I'm trying to figure out how Tessier-Ashpool could be described as a transgalactic corporation. Not too many tentacled space aliens in the book, etc.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 2:08 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm sure Jameson is brilliant, but he just seems to toss out a sentence or two on every conceivable idea about a topic, little thought-farts that he then runs away from to lay another a few steps away. This is why I could never get through The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
posted by gwint at 2:16 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


He's going to be disappointed to discover that you can't even really travel to Spook Country.
posted by jquinby at 2:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I haven't read the linked article yet, but I have read the first few comments here, and my recommendation for anyone who wants to dispute a point of literary criticism with Fredric Jameson is this: put a little thought into it. Say, about as much thought as you might put into a point of physics you were about to dispute with Edward Witten.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:22 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Cyberspace is where you're at when you talk with someone on the phone, back when people did that.
posted by straight at 2:27 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't know what he is trying to say. Maybe he could write clearer?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:31 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm not actually sure what his point is, but I'm pretty sure I disagree with it.

I mean, to lines like "What is confusing is that we assume punk culture to be somehow more physical than normal bourgeois straightlaced decorum; and also that philosophical idealisms (perhaps with the exception of the rather curious current revivals of Bergson) are today extinct, " I don't think I can have any response besides 'what do you mean we, white man?'

(as an outsider I would say that punk might 'look' more physical precisely because it rejects bourgeois materialism in favor of an ideal of personal authenticity. And unless 'extinct' carries with it the qualifier 'among the kind of people Jameson takes seriously', the latter clause seems to have come from about 2 decades ago.)
posted by PMdixon at 2:31 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm only three sentences in and I already disagree with every one of his assertions. Hmm.

I'm not actually sure what his point is, but I'm pretty sure I disagree with it.

This is why I cringe whenever anyone posts about a humanities topic on Metafilter. No one provides a reasoned disagreement, jus a pithy dismissal of the posted material as self-evidently wrong.

I'll bite: mount a defense of Orwell's 1984 as a reflection of serious political thought. Explain why it counts as a foundational work of science fiction.

Explain where you see philosophical idealism being taken up robustly.

If you want to argue with the essay, try mounting an argument.

This guy is aware that it a was referred to a consensual mass hallucination right?

I love cyberspace.


You are aware that Jameson quotes exactly that language later in the essay and discusses it, right?
posted by kewb at 2:41 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


No one provides a reasoned disagreement

Well, for one, does he deserve one? He's argument is obsfucated. I don't know what he is saying or what his point is. I don't know if its self-evidently wrong, because nothing about his writing is self-evident. The point of writing is to communicate, and Jameson is doing a poor job at it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:45 PM on July 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Ok, then where are you first getting lost?
posted by kewb at 2:49 PM on July 1, 2015


Here, try the final paragraph:
The totality of the system determines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, while we fall prey to the physical illusions of a present constructed out of sheer images. If I called Gibson’s novel critical, and an instrument of exploration which is also diagnostic, it is because of the way in which he focuses on the combination of these two dimensions of a dialectic of globalization. The distinction of Neuromancer thus lies in the nature of the form itself, as an instrument which registers current realities normally beyond the capacity of the realistic eye to see, which projects dimensions of daily life we cannot consciously experience.
Let's locate the obscurity of the argument and then work on it to see if there's anything there, rather than deciding that the confusion can be on only one side of the text.
posted by kewb at 2:53 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, to me this seems like a land-grab from the world of lit crit* to try and show that cyberspace is 'their' territory rather than anything to do with those newfangled computer things 'there are certainly historical reasons for its appearance at the dawn of postmodernity which greatly transcend the technological fact of computer development or the invention of the Internet'

Its all either incomprehensible or wrong.

e.g.

... the utopian form has been unable to take onboard the computer, cybernetics or information technology ...

Has he heard of Iain M Banks? No probably not because Sci Fi isn't literature to these guys.

... cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist ...

Has he ever heard of Minecraft? Because to give just one very simple example, Minecraft works very much like cyberspace. He seems to just not understand how cyberspace works even in fiction. In Gibson's novels you don't disappear from the real world while you are in cyberspace. But he seems to think that we should, for some reason? (' ... nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it ...')

* yep I'm a big fan of Alan Sokal
posted by memebake at 2:55 PM on July 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


If you want to argue with the essay, try mounting an argument.

All of the premises that I can identify as such are stated as obvious while being, as far as I can tell, quite far from such. The connections between these premises is obfuscated, and the conclusion if there is one is deeply obscure. I pointed out exactly what I objected to in the subset I quoted. This is not an author I'm inclined to read in good faith, based on the selection.

I was married to a humanities grad student. I'm not completely unaware of the tools of the trade there. I have enough self respect as a reader to say that when I can't even tell where and whether he's saying that 'cyberspace' and financial capitalism are usefully comparable and where not, that's either bad writing or a uselessly incomplete excerpt.

If I have to treat an author as adversary, there better be something worthwhile at the end. 'Cyberspace is a metaphor,' 'financial capitalism is a problem,' nor 'eudamonia can't deal with automation' are none of them sufficiently worthwhile.
posted by PMdixon at 2:56 PM on July 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


The totality of the system determines us in all kinds of imperceptible ways, while we fall prey to the physical illusions of a present constructed out of sheer images.

What system? What's part of the system? What's not part of the system? What are these images? What are not these images?

If I called Gibson’s novel critical, and an instrument of exploration which is also diagnostic, it is because of the way in which he focuses on the combination of these two dimensions of a dialectic of globalization.

What is a 'dialectic of globalization'? If we assume that there is no dialectic of globalization, then how does his argument change?

The distinction of Neuromancer thus lies in the nature of the form itself, as an instrument which registers current realities normally beyond the capacity of the realistic eye to see, which projects dimensions of daily life we cannot consciously experience.

what
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:01 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The argument seems pretty simple to me - is cyberspace it's own reality divorced from what we call the real world, or is it just another way of viewing the world? I tend to lean towards the latter, which is an idea that scares a lot of people.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:02 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would suggest that the reason people write in this obfuscated way is that it becomes practically impossible for them to ever appear to lose an argument. If someone starts homing in on something that appears to be wrong, the whole prose can just be re-explained by the author in an even more obfuscated way to avoid the perceived problem. Its a way of seeming unassailably clever without having to ever get into territory in which one might be shown to be wrong.
posted by memebake at 3:04 PM on July 1, 2015 [21 favorites]


Oh man, I can already see that the mismatch between Jameson and MetaFilter is going to result in one of my favorite threads ever. "Who this guy think he is anyway, he so dumb lel," whooshed the assembled SF-reader commentariat while failing to read the greatest living cultural theorist.
posted by RogerB at 3:04 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


This was written by a twitterbot, right?
posted by Artw at 3:05 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


...current realities normally beyond the capacity of the realistic eye to see, which projects dimensions of daily life we cannot consciously experience.

My conscious experience of this guy is that he's either mistaken or full of shit, even though my only experience of him is mediated by computers and thus not "consciously experienced."
posted by infinitewindow at 3:05 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]



Oh man, I can already see that the mismatch between Jameson and MetaFilter is going to result in one of my favorite threads ever. "Who this guy think he is anyway, he so dumb lel," whooshed the assembled SF-reader commentariat while failing to read the greatest living cultural theorist


Well I'm an academic. I read Jameson's book on Postermodernism. It was a waste of my time and I couldn't tell you a thing about it. There's few books I can say that about.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:07 PM on July 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


Are there any equivalents [to cyberspace] in the cultural past for such “belief ” in the existence of a literary image or figure?

How about "the market" or "the commons" or "the world community" or "the ivory tower" or "late capitalism"? "Cyberspace" is the name for a conversation we're having and the apparatus we use for having it.
posted by jhc at 3:09 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


OK, I'll bite, someone mount a defense that

[we assume] philosophical idealisms (perhaps with the exception of the rather curious current revivals of Bergson) are today extinct
posted by PMdixon at 3:10 PM on July 1, 2015


This is why I cringe whenever anyone posts about a humanities topic on Metafilter. No one provides a reasoned disagreement, jus a pithy dismissal of the posted material as self-evidently wrong.


If the author makes claims and provides no basis for those claims beyond being reportedly the "greatest living cultural theorist", it is not up to the reader to do his homework for him.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


I'll bite: mount a defense of Orwell's 1984 as a reflection of serious political thought. Explain why it counts as a foundational work of science fiction.

Gosh, there's homework!

Sorry, this guy is just a pompous bore and I strongly suspect his work is primarily a long-con on idiots who mistake his work for insightful.
posted by Artw at 3:13 PM on July 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


Oh man, I can already see that the mismatch between Jameson and MetaFilter is going to result in one of my favorite threads ever. "Who this guy think he is anyway, he so dumb lel," whooshed the assembled SF-reader commentariat while failing to read the greatest living cultural theorist.

I appreciate it must be exasperating to have the field misunderstood, but no-one within that field seems to be working hard to make it understood. If he's the greatest living cultural theorist and he writes like that, I really am going to just ignore the whole field.

I work with complexity a lot, and there are many ways to present complex ideas in digestible ways. I'm very sceptical of writers who seems to go out of their way to _not_ be easily understood. What do they gain from that? It just seems like a defence mechanism to me.
posted by memebake at 3:14 PM on July 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day.

This is such an interesting sentence, both in the context within which people augment their lives through association with a public persona (or several) with varying degrees of adherence to their core, but also in the context of a world where virtual worlds exist now, and scientists are already studying the effects that doing things to our avatars have on our minds/bodies.

I spend a great deal of time on Second Life, which is one of these virtual worlds, and identify closely with my avatar, of whom I take many pictures (selfies or art is one of those interesting arguments that cut across the Second Life blog-o-sphere semi-regularly), and I've experienced those moments when something in the environment responds to me (Bryn Oh's recent multi-world art project in Berlin and Second Life is an example - it's set up with you as a voyeur until about halfway through, at which point a light swivels to follow you as you approach it, and you're suddenly - shockingly - a part of the narrative in a manner which I don't think could be achieved outside of a virtual space. I talked a little bit about it in my blog post on the same.)

What's interesting to me is that despite the overselling of Second Life in 2007, it has almost completely dropped from public narratives about the internet and virtuality. Despite it still being pretty large, and creating revenue not only for Linden Labs but also for many residents (primarily creators and land owners), despite it being an attempt toward the concepts of "cyberspace" that Gibson described, I think the barriers to entry are sufficiently high that few people are aware of it, much less engaged with it. Despite this, it is a topic for study and discussion, just within these seemingly isolated groups while a larger conversation goes on about how virtual worlds are "coming back" with technology like the Occulus Rift. I wonder what his perceptions would be if he tried something closer to Gibson's original idea, a literal 3d space within which one could, as an avatar, interact with others and their creations.

His further focus on the "fantasy of non-alienated collective work" is interesting as well, given he positions labor as a literary invention as well. I'm assuming he at least recognizes the power of "literary inventions" to effect change, because how people thing about things can be as important as what they think, but I'm loosing track of what his larger point could be. Like, he positions the caper plot as a fantasy of collective work, where each member has a distinct role, but collective work happens - many of us may experience it - and stories about how people go from individuality to a shared vision is the topic of a lot of lengthier stories (The plot of the TV show Leverage comes to mind; while the cohesive through-plot is of achieving justice for the powerless, the secondary theme is about the healing of all five of the main characters through learning how to work together and relate to each other.).

Is it a philosopher thing, this circling of an idea without specifying what it is? He seems to be narrowing in on how weird it is that humans make abstractions of abstractions of abstractions ("abstraction to the second power"), but that seems obvious to me - what is language but an abstraction of our abstractions of the world? And analysis is an abstraction further. Part of how metaphors operate is that they allow for succinct communication of complicated data we may not fully understand - like the sentences made of webs of associations in the book Beggars in Spain which are used to communicate complicated conceptualizations of the world between plot-driven-over-intelligent children. By the time you get to "cyberspace" you're in the same realm as "art," which is abstractions folded inward on abstractions until you create something new to communicate new/different information.

What looks here like some stereotypical postmodern lapse into visual representation is on the contrary a complex mapping of the incalculable connections—Spinoza’s rerum concatenatio—between all the multiple powers and vectors of the real world, that is, the underlying and invisible one, that we cannot see with our normal bodily senses.

He does know how to torture syntax. As a fellow syntax murderess, I can sympathize. Having not read Spinoza, I don't know his Latinate fetishes, but the gist seems to be that although this looks like icky post-modernism (OHNOEZ!) it is actually something Spinoza-y good in that it's using metaphor to explain intangible things that still exist, which is kind of what metaphors do. On this point, I feel beholden to bring up that frequently the "intangible" is closely tied with the "emotional" as part of a general dismissal of emotional knowledge and content in complicated analysis which is part and parcel of a rarefication of logic as the only way to know "The Truth", but I have no idea how relevant that is, as I'm lost in Jameson's labyrinthine syntax.

He then sticks a pin in 'finance is one of the confusing unknowables haunting the dreams of anyone who approaches in the modern era, and may itself be a metaphor for globalization of culture', which is a very funny pin to set, but I agree it's an interesting idea. There is a ribbon of Jungian thought around how money works in terms of psychodynamics and archetypes; he might like it. "capitalism now as it were profiting from itself and speculating on itself, feeding on itself, by way of the stock market and its allied institutions" is a cogent commentary on the current crises where money has become less 'way of getting needs met' and more 'way of measuring who is winning'. I'm not sure that's a novel issue with any sort of means of social organizations, though; as near as I can tell from my admittedly limited view of history, any time there was a way to organize people, some people hoarded more than they needed by far while depriving others until the deprived were sufficiently deprived to have nothing to lose, and heads rolled.

Ironically, given his focus on abstraction, he is all but a stick figure of a man in this. Besides a few hints (the aforementioned slight distaste for post-modernism which I exaggerated, the thru-line of 20$ words where 10$ would do) it is nearly impossible to tell what he thinks of any of the things he's discussing. He is so focused on taxonomy that all of the life is stripped from his analysis; I'd argue with him, but I'm not sure what side he's taking, or if he thinks sides are somehow an unnecessary abstraction. He's also light-years away from touching in with tangible reality as well, but I've noticed that's a regular issue with all sorts of philosophy (thanks, Aristotle!). Even when a touchstone would be obvious - the mention of finances for example, where the focus of money on rampant speculation is literally causing people to lose homes, jobs, lives - he passes it by to remain focused on abstraction.

That, along with the stripping of emotional content, makes this incredibly difficult to parse.

"This is the sense in which literature can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit, and in which Neuromancer stands a precious symptom of our passage into another historical period.

But abstraction is not the only such symptom"


HEY GUYS I FOUND A THESIS!!!

Ok, so his argument is that we're in the process of moving from one historical period to another, and Neuromancer is a prescient metaphor for the qualities of this new historical period. One such "symptom" (such an interesting choice of language - sneaking in disease in a weird way to undercut his own arguments) is what he perceives as increasing levels of abstraction.

AND HE MANAGES TO NOT BE OBTUSE FOR A WHILE! Wooohooo~!

"Case’s function is indeed to switch back and forth between these two distinct and very different capabilities: to be in cyberspace, tracking the abstract movement of his “ice-breakers” as they attempt to penetrate the ice of the security system; and then to switch to simstim for an immediate experiential perspective on the empirical operations within one location in the system."

So abstraction is one aspect of the "new historical period" but so is concrete, share perception of reality through the means of another's body. Arguably, this is a more direct expression of what we all abstractly have been doing via conversation and art for millennia.

Interesting side-point: I'd love to know more about issues of consent and the extent to which knowledge is/can be transferred in this context. Jameson ignores those issues entirely, along with the interesting context that the male main character "simstim"s a female character's experience. By chance he locates issues of materiality (he's really focused on body-as-meat as a metaphor) in proximity to emotions-as-experience, but it's like he can't see the importance of that and the role of gender, the gendering of emotion/bodies, and the objectification of a woman as something for a male subject to inhabit.

He has some interesting points about how abstractions can bar us from really experiencing/having true knowledge, but ironically his abstraction of this idea makes it seem weirdly bloodless and unimportant. I can pull a few things from it to get passionate about, ones often tied to my lived experience and emotional content, but I'm not sure that's a level he can hit and his attempt to distance himself from abstraction using abstraction makes the whole thing ring false.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:16 PM on July 1, 2015 [18 favorites]


Not sure how to phrase this (hi!), but I did sign on for this.

He's pushing a book (http://www.versobooks.com/books/1784-the-ancients-and-the-postmoderns) and he's trying to make a challenge to the cannon, I understand that.

He references Deleuze - and gets it wrong. Very. Very. Wrong.

He has no real idea what the Actual / Virtual is about. (Note: It is specifically not about "virtual" or electronic worlds - to conflate these is like throwing around H. Arendt in reference to the Armenian genocides and claiming that her relationship was with a S.African. It's just wrong.)

He then goes on to reference Bergson (which you almost always reference prior to Deleuze, for good reasons, not vice versa).

He has no idea about what Bergson's Concrete / Discrete or Duration is about either. Especially when he's talking about the disjunct between the physical log in and mental space where duration as a concept is actually really helpful. i.e. The Bergsonian duration could be useful in dealing with compressed space/time of flying through virtual worlds.

But he doesn't.

And, worse: he can't even link these concepts to what CyberPunk actually did (esp. in cultural space, where in reality black hat groups and rhizomatic theory were expressly linked).

Added to this, he lacks the ability to link the D/B referential modes of Time/Space to the compression aspect that's so important to the novels. Seriously. 30 mins with a PHD student would have upgraded your essay to a gold standard.

That's before actually engaging with interesting concepts that CyberPunk did, and where it failed to meet the future. (OpenSource <> Rhizomes, WarMachines <> CyberWar etc)

my recommendation for anyone who wants to dispute a point of literary criticism with Fredric Jameson is this: put a little thought into it. Say, about as much thought as you might put into a point of physics you were about to dispute with Edward Witten.

Sorry, no.

As a literary critic, sure - I can place him alongside T Eagleton - in that cannon of Lit. Crits who grab onto Continental Philosophy and have no idea what they're doing with it. (That's not say either doesn't have merit - but both are culpable of warping philosophy to their own ends).

I'm unfamiliar with these parts, so - should I type 2000 words outlining why he's wrong (no-one here does long form) or should I start doing bullet points?

p.s.


Also - is it ok to link to other media?

I feel the need to link to Johnny Mnemonic scene where he tears his white shirt screaming "I want ROOM SERVICE" .
posted by Rhizomes_are_in_your_Ovaries at 3:17 PM on July 1, 2015 [22 favorites]


Wooot! Wall of text!

o/~ We built this (cyber)city! o/~
o/~ We built this (cyber)city on walls... of... text~! o/~
posted by Deoridhe at 3:17 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


We absolutely do longform and links.
posted by Artw at 3:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is why I cringe whenever anyone posts about a humanities topic on Metafilter.

Seriously, this thread is an amazing cautionary tale. Remember it next time someone claims this place is capable of grownup discussion about the humanities.

If he's the greatest living cultural theorist and he writes like that, I really am going to just ignore the whole field.

"If he's the greatest living mathematician, why don't I immediately understand this proof? I took calculus in college, and the rest of this notation is just the emperor's new clothes trying to con idiots who think it looks deep."
posted by RogerB at 3:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


should I type 2000 words outlining why he's wrong (no-one here does long form) or should I start doing bullet points?

The former please.
posted by PMdixon at 3:21 PM on July 1, 2015


This is why I cringe whenever anyone posts about a humanities topic on Metafilter.

Seriously, this thread is an amazing cautionary tale. Remember it next time someone claims this place is capable of grownup discussion about the humanities


Well, fuck, tell us when he has some kind of interesting point. "HE'S SO GREAT YOU JUST DON'T GET HIM" in itself tells us nothing without that.
posted by Artw at 3:22 PM on July 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


Coincidentally, I just read Gibson's original, badass "Johnny Mnemonic" short story at lunch today. I am now envisioning the Yakuza assassin as editor, taking his monomolecular thumb weapon to this theorist's textual accumulations.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:23 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'd never heard of Fredric Jameson, but his arms-length handling of cyberspace made me wonder if he was from an older generation. And what do you know, he's 81. That's not a criticism as such, but Neuromancer came out when I was 2. I read it when I was 10 and cyberspace has been around forever as far as my brain's concerned.

Jameson's contention that "There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture" is completely at odds with my own personal experience. I write software for fun and as part of my job. A lot of my life is spent sat at a computer, but when I'm absorbed in the process of programming the space I inhabit is clearly not the room where I and the computer physically exist - instead, I'm in my head, and in the model of the system that I've built in my head. I'm aware of the real world, but I'm less there than usual. When people speak to me, it takes a while for the information to reach me. There's a distance.

This isn't an uncommon experience as far as I know. It's probably related to Csíkszentmihályi's ideas of flow states. Programming seems to the kind of activity particularly liable to induce flow states, which are a form of altered perception. You start writing some code. You look up and three hours have passed by. Call it what you like: It's pretty much cyberspace. It's not an exact copy of Gibson's interpretation of cyberspace, but I don't think it's much of a stretch.

To me, this is the fundamental problem with the essay: Jameson is writing from the position of an outsider, probing at something he lacks the tools to understand (I'm sure he understands plenty of things I have no idea about, but that's not the essay I've just read). He goes on about abstraction without ever reaching the idea that computers and software are composed of abstractions layered on top of abstractions. Designing a software system is a process of defining useful systems of abstractions. It's like watching someone talk about musicians and being astonished at the role of rhythm.
posted by xchmp at 3:24 PM on July 1, 2015 [25 favorites]


RogerB, I regulalrly read academic articles in the various fields: economics, sociology, political science, history, statistics, and sometimes philosophy. Everything that I can understand, I know that I can understand it, and I know when something is technically too difficult for me and I can understand it. Often with philosophy, I could understand it if I took the time, but I rarely need to. But I have no idea what the fuck Jameson is saying here and he is not writing a technical treatise.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:24 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Has he heard of Iain M Banks? No probably not because Sci Fi isn't literature to these guys.

Jameson wrote a book about science fiction, albeit an American-centric one:
So feminist SF is represented by Le Guin, Russ and Piercy, but not the equally distinguished Canadian, Margaret Atwood; fantasy and magic by Le Guin, but not the English China Miéville, whose New Crobuzon novels represent a serious theoretical challenge to Jameson; cyberpunk by Gibson and Sterling, but not the Australian Greg Egan; contemporary utopianism by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but not its Scottish equivalent, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels....
So I'm not sure about Banks in particular, but Jameson is not just now stumbling into contemporary science fiction writing.

What is a 'dialectic of globalization'? If we assume that there is no dialectic of globalization, then how does his argument change?

Jameson is a Marxist theorist. The dialectic is defined in the first sentence of the paragraph you quote: the contradiction between being imperceptibly determined as subjects by the system of global finance capital even as we define ourselves and our world in terms of false images, ti the point that some people actually argue as if the digital space has *superseded* material space in economics or culture. Of course, this "digital space" is, as Gibson handily points out, merely a metaphor and secretly relies on materiality.

[we assume] philosophical idealisms (perhaps with the exception of the rather curious current revivals of Bergson) are today extinct

They largely are; you don't find a lot of Platonists around, just neo-Kantians and empiricists. Jameson makes the point elsewhere in the article that even contemporary religions tend to emphasize material existence rather than ideality.

The dissections by Rhizomes and Deoridhe are pretty interesting, and they handily answer some of the other questions people seem to be asking here.
posted by kewb at 3:25 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


"If he's the greatest living mathematician, why don't I immediately understand this proof? I took calculus in college, and the rest of this notation is just the emperor's new clothes trying to con idiots who think it looks deep."

I don't think mathematics is a good metaphor for what this guy is practicing. Because of the impostor argument - how long could an impostor survive in the field of mathematics? How long could they survive in cultural theory/lit crit?
posted by memebake at 3:25 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"If he's the greatest living mathematician, why don't I immediately understand this proof? I took calculus in college, and the rest of this notation is just the emperor's new clothes trying to con idiots who think it looks deep."

Having a graduate degree in mathematics shouldn't be a requirement for joining Metafilter, which is why people don't do things like post Maxwell's Equations and then get pissed off when people claim it is jibberish. If a coherent discussion of this essay requires an advanced degree then maybe it's not a great link for a general audience discussion forum like Metafilter.
posted by gwint at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


Fucking thing starts by picking a genre argument, the dumbest form of argument, with a strawman while simultaneously arguing the strawman is dumb. Gold standard this is not.
posted by Artw at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Remember when people actually majored in semiotics?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


A lot of my life is spent sat at a computer, but when I'm absorbed in the process of programming the space I inhabit is clearly not the room where I and the computer physically exist - instead, I'm in my head, and in the model of the system that I've built in my head. I'm aware of the real world, but I'm less there than usual.

This is part of Jameson's point: despite the seductions of the self-perception, of absorption in abstracted and imagistic fields of play, neither you nor the computer have ceased to be a material entity driven by material concerns. Subjective perception is directly at odds with material reality in such moments.
posted by kewb at 3:29 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


We absolutely do longform and links.

The former please.


Not sure if you're being serious or just goading a new user. Long posts don't seem common.

The fact that he threw Deleuze in there without referencing to A Thousand Plateaus, and in particular chapter 7 (Year Zero: Facility) without ironically linking them to Gibson's cyberpunk and use of Avarars is telling.

The Face is a surface: facial traits, lines, wrinkles; long face, square face, triangular face; the face is a map, even when it is applied to and wraps a volume, even when it surrounds and borders cavities that are no more than holes.

p170


If you're going to reference it in a flashy way, I'd suggest grabbing onto something that immediately meshes with some of Gibson's thought on avatars, ID projected into virtual space and so on.
posted by Rhizomes_are_in_your_Ovaries at 3:31 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


So... "you still have meat"?

What a dumb insight.

No wonder the Corps won't pay for semiotics.
posted by Artw at 3:31 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


They largely are; you don't find a lot of Platonists around, just neo-Kantians and empiricists.

Did you miss all the 'natural law' talk that opportunistically sprung up once SSM became a live issue? Aristotle not Plato, I know.
posted by PMdixon at 3:31 PM on July 1, 2015


This is part of Jameson's point: despite the seductions of the self-perception, of absorption in abstracted and imagistic fields of play, neither you nor the computer have ceased to be a material entity driven by material concerns. Subjective perception is directly at odds with material reality in such moments.

So Jameson's point that if I fall into a code-hole I still need to piss and shit?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:33 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


You don't find a lot of Platonists around.

You haven't spent much time around drunk mathematical physicists have you?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:35 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Subjective perception is directly at odds with material reality in such moments.

Right, this is a claim that's either uninteresting because trivial, or else wrong for reasons of arbitrary line drawing. My subjective perception is always at odds with material reality in any kind of literal sense. If you want to make the claim that there's normally some kind of 'natural' mapping that's missing in the cyberspace case, Jameson can do so, but it would be quite difficult to do so in a convincing fashion.
posted by PMdixon at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2015


... neither you nor the computer have ceased to be a material entity driven by material concerns.

But the concept of Cyberspace has never denied the real world. Infact the idea that when you're in Cyberspace you are also still in the real world at the same time is crucial to the plot of every cyberspace-type novel ever. Its crucial to the matrix and so on. The very definition of cyberspace is that while you're in it, you're still somewhere else as well. So when Jameson claims that cyberspace does not exist because '... [we do not] leave our bodies behind when we enter it...' he just doesn't get it. He's just flat wrong. He does not understand the simplest detail of the thing he is pretending to write about.
posted by memebake at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


So Jameson's point that if I fall into a code-hole I still need to piss and shit?

"Wherever you are... there you are."
posted by Artw at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Read the essay 3 times, looked up a bunch of stuff. Very much enjoying the discussion here, so, mission accomplished. This is good Metafilter, so thanks for posting it, jammy.
posted by jquinby at 3:37 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


In the event (however unlikely) that anyone loudly proclaiming their discomprehension in this thread actually wants some accessibly-written help understanding Jameson's work, Adam Roberts's recent Routledge Critical Thinkers intro-book is a decent place to start.
posted by RogerB at 3:37 PM on July 1, 2015


Ok he's a broader and totes sincere question.

In every academic endeavor, where someone does research (either theoretical or empirical), and one presents that research, they present and argument and reasons why their argument is good and what contribution this makes to knowledge.

Why doesnt Jameson just say:

My argument is that Gibson is should best be interpreted in X way. Here is the evidence for this interepretation: A,B,C. This interpretation addressess numerous deficiencies in this other interpretation, E,D,F. In conclusion, this interpretation sheds new light on our common experience of interacting with computers, etc.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:38 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Metaphors are, like, not real."
posted by Artw at 3:38 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I take issue with the first line quoted above: the statement that cyberspace is a literary invention. It is no different than, say, one's imagination, which is neither a literary invention nor a separate space.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:42 PM on July 1, 2015


xcmhp:
When people speak to me, it takes a while for the information to reach me. There's a distance.

This is absolutely A Thing. One of the interesting discussions around Second Life is about immersion versus augmentation, and what immersion means, and a lot of this is essentially trying to define "cyberspace" but through the comparing the lived experiences of a lot of different people. I think the discussion is inhibited by the equation of "virtual" and "not real" (see also: it's the internet, not real life); axiomically, I maintain that our thoughts, stories, fantasies, creations, etc... are real even if they are not physical because they often drive our behavior to affect the world around us. This is an axiom I know others disagree with.

Jameson is a Marxist theorist.

Ah! Ok. That helps a little. He sort of threw Marx in there without grafting it well, but if that's his particular shibboleth that makes sense.

kewb:
Subjective perception is directly at odds with material reality in such moments.

Only if you consider what is happening electronically/chemically in our brains and what is happening electronically/mathematically in the computer to be non-material. This is supported if you accept body/brain (or hard drive/RAM) duality, but that duality has been breaking down for decades, scientifically speaking. As for Jameson's perspective of it, as near as I can tell he's a stick figure, so he probably only really exists in xkcd strips.

Rhizomes are in your Ovaries:
Not sure if you're being serious or just goading a new user. Long posts don't seem common.

Longform posts take time. There is a way in which MetaFilter can more resemble a coffee party than a series of exchanged essays or letters. I usually split the difference and longform then engage; your miles may vary. Longform is appreciated here, though, and not viewed as an interruption or unnecessary addition. Despite the light-hearted nature of a lot of our responses (mine probably most of all - I engage with philosophy/criticism via slightly different means, being Internet Trained) the requests for your longform response are sincere.
posted by Deoridhe at 3:42 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Not sure if you're being serious or just goading a new user. Long posts don't seem common.

Technical posts, in the sciences or crafts, for example, always benefit form those members who are capable of relating and expanding on the material of the post to the more non-specific audience. You can pretty safely assume a reasonable level of general comprehension here, but can't expect folks to understand jargon or non-standard uses and terms of art. Being dumped into a dense, turgid technical document whether that's cultural or quantum gravity theory often leads to misreadings and half-understandings. Anything that can be done to take apart the jargon benefits the discussion here.
posted by bonehead at 3:45 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


despite the seductions of the self-perception, of absorption in abstracted and imagistic fields of play, neither you nor the computer have ceased to be a material entity driven by material concerns. Subjective perception is directly at odds with material reality in such moments.

This is begging the question. My argument is that Jameson is mistaken about where 'I' am.
posted by xchmp at 3:49 PM on July 1, 2015


Serious question: [why] do Marxist identifying people tend to fall victim to some version of mind/body duality?
posted by PMdixon at 3:50 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day.

Not really exist, huh? He seems to be implying that the choice is a binary one, and not a complex overlay of multiple 'worlds' happening at the same time. When it comes to virtual worlds and environments, there are quite a few parts of the brain that simply can't tell the difference between real and virtual, and react accordingly. The brain can easily handle multiple 'selves' simultaneously, and what's unreal on one side clearly creates real effects on the other. Almost 20 years ago, I spent a year and a half researching, experimenting, and writing a thesis on this, and while it was a rather novice academic attempt that only scratched the surface of a small part of what one might call cyberspace, and carried with it the (now hilariously) lofty title of "A Phenomenological Examination of the Existential Concept of Body in Computer Mediated Communication," (unpublished) its findings do seem to directly dispute his idea that this literary invention has not been reproduced in some forms that elicits real effects on people in the real world. In many different ways over the years with varying amounts of success, and while not exactly Gibson's cyberspace, what we do have is tens of thousands of fragmented pieces of cyberspace that are evolving and combining into more complex forms.
posted by chambers at 3:53 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


As kewb said above, Jameson's a Marxist, so this is a Marxist reading of the novel. Specifically, he's arguing that Gibson's concept of cyberspace can be interpreted as a prophetic metaphor for the successive cycles of abstraction that global finance imposes on capital. You can see this in passages like the following:

"The new postmodern abstraction is the abstraction of information as such: the way in which the seemingly concrete visual image is already abstract by virtue of its transmission in advertising; it is a visual cliché and no longer merely a conceptual or verbal one. And it is precisely this new kind of abstraction which it was the unique vocation of cyberpunk to convey in literary form. And what it is to which this artistic form corresponds in globalization is very precisely the historically new abstraction of finance capital we have been describing."

And further, a ways down:

"We thus enter a new era of abstraction and a disembodied state which is indeed that play of signs and signifiers anticipated by the structuralists, and which cyberspace now dramatically embodies in literature and art."

And elsewhere:

"... this unrepresentable totality, which until now only science fiction has uniquely possessed the representational means to designate, is that of finance capital itself..."

By the way, this ties in with his earlier comment that "there are certainly historical reasons for [the invention of the concept of cyberspace] at the dawn of postmodernity which greatly transcend the technological fact of computer development or the invention of the Internet." He's interested in cyberspace not just as the neurally-interfaced hallucination that Gibson imagined, but as a metaphor for the movement of dematerialized capital--an abstract but powerful system that undeniably surrounds and permeates us in our "meat" lives. That's the novelty of the book, for Jameson: it gives a vivid, narratively compelling way of representing the realities of the contemporary global financial system.

Of course you can disagree with that as a reading, or think it's trivial, or bullshit, or whatever. But it seems to be pretty clear from those passages, which also make sense of most of the rest of the essay (which I also thought was overlong, but it's a book excerpt, so I'll be tolerant.) Interesting to think about how the opposition of cyberspace with simstim plays out in this scheme, etc., but that's enough for one round.
posted by informavore at 3:57 PM on July 1, 2015 [12 favorites]


MisantropicPainforest Why doesnt Jameson just say:

My argument is that Gibson is should best be interpreted in X way. Here is the evidence for this interepretation: A,B,C. This interpretation addressess numerous deficiencies in this other interpretation, E,D,F. In conclusion, this interpretation sheds new light on our common experience of interacting with computers, etc.


Great question. I'd say one reason is that he doesn't write like that is that he's scared of ever appearing to be wrong. Evidently in his field you have to spend your whole career stating opinions and you're not ever allowed to appear incorrect. So obfuscation really helps with that.

Another reason (from other things I've seen in the same field) is that there's some sort of arms race of tortured syntax and barely decipherable meanings. The more difficult you are to read the more people rave about your stuff (Deleuze and Guattari, etc). Its a bit like death metal and the whole terrible din+screaming thing.
posted by memebake at 3:58 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm unfamiliar with these parts, so

By all appearance you aren't, actually, and have been told in very clear terms to stop trying to sign up. I'm closing this account, don't keep wasting our time.
posted by cortex at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2015


What is confusing is that we assume punk culture to be somehow more physical than normal bourgeois straightlaced decorum; and also that philosophical idealisms ... re today extinct.
Isn't this rather ignorant of punk? I mean, the whole notion of punk is not to reject the mainstream culture, but to mock how it worships the trivial. Punk is quite often saying "the difference between G.G. Allin and Justin Beiber is a matter of collective belief", not that one is "more physical" than the other.
If Neuromancer were a literary novel...
Why is the genre distinction here necessary to his statement? I mean, the writer tells a story, and the reader takes meaning from it. That Jameson is only willing to take that statement from the novel if it fits into his preconceived genre settings says more about Jameson than Gibson.
posted by straw at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Serious question: [why] do Marxist identifying people tend to fall victim to some version of mind/body duality?

I personally think it's sufficiently culturally pervasive that lots of people do.

My feminist take is that the messier/harder/emotional/etc... aspects of life have been offloaded by the privileged onto the less privileged, which reinforces the mind/body duality. It's easy to be "just a mind" when food shows up on schedule, you always have clean clothing, and when you're upset someone comforts and soothes you. The reality of your physicality is even easy to ignore when one can purchase meal bars or soylent and focus on whatever intellectual curiosity is drawing ones' attention.

From this distanced, unemotional, clear and clean vantage point, one can view the struggles, emotions, and dirt of the masses with decorum and abstraction, and use any expression of emotion against the ones expressing them. This is a startlingly common dynamic, both online and off, and it is intensely damaging - both to the person so disassociated from most of themselves that they discredit emotion and pretend they are clean and perfect, and to the people who are left doing the dishes and wiping the butts of babes and elders alike.

(As a side note, this plays into the dynamics between white feminists and feminists of color as well - the physical offloading of cleaning to women of color can be seen as a particularly damning metaphor. From a Marxist perspective one might focus on the class distinctions, but I think gender and race play too great a role for class to be the only explanation.)
posted by Deoridhe at 4:03 PM on July 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


Seriously, this thread is an amazing cautionary tale. Remember it next time someone claims this place is capable of grownup discussion about the humanities.

Personally, I would only ask that the author of the linked post have actually read the book he is critiquing, with at least a little care for detail. It is not evident that he has. Contrariwise, it seems evident that he has not.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 4:17 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


People who are claiming that Jameson / cultural theorists need to be "clearer": consider, briefly, the imprecision and slippage of language when discussing theoretical concepts of any kind, not to mention those which have been discussed and argued on (thus creating many subtleties and fine distinctions) for hundreds of years.

Maybe imposter tests make mathematics a bad example, but it's a good example in the sense that when someone posts a particularly dry piece of proof on MeFi people don't chime in to say things like "THIS is what math is all about? Writing these long, stupid proofs?! What's the point, so boring"
posted by easter queen at 4:24 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also Frederic Jameson is smarter than all of you. ALL OF YOU.
posted by easter queen at 4:25 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


People who are claiming that Jameson / cultural theorists need to be "clearer": consider, briefly, the imprecision and slippage of language when discussing theoretical concepts of any kind, not to mention those which have been discussed and argued on (thus creating many subtleties and fine distinctions) for hundreds of years.

So why can philosophers and political theorists do it?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:26 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


OMG I R TEH STUPIDS OHNOEZ~! ;)
posted by Deoridhe at 4:27 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Imagine the same article, but with the valence of so called finance capitalism flipped from negative to positive. You would then have a piece quite at home on the technological-commercialist wing of neoreaction.
posted by topynate at 4:30 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


MisanthropicPainforest, I honestly don't understand your bafflement-- I find Jameson no harder to read than your average continental philosopher. (But then again I was trained in lit/cultural crit.)

And Deoridhe, I was kidding of course but more about people accusing Jameson of being dumb, not people engaging productively with his text, which thanks btw your post was very interesting!
posted by easter queen at 4:31 PM on July 1, 2015


Pretty sure the author is going to feel like nitpickistan, contrairasia and refutania are real places now.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:34 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


He's interested in cyberspace not just as the neurally-interfaced hallucination that Gibson imagined, but as a metaphor for the movement of dematerialized capital--an abstract but powerful system that undeniably surrounds and permeates us in our "meat" lives. That's the novelty of the book, for Jameson: it gives a vivid, narratively compelling way of representing the realities of the contemporary global financial system.

These are not particularly interesting ideas (maybe they are within his field?), because a) everything's abstractions all the way down b) it's been impossible to seriously argue otherwise since the early 1930's, and c) this is not a metaphor. If Jameson wants to talk about the contemporary global financial system, maybe he should treat his own ideas seriously instead of engaging in this quixotic attempt to constrain them in a cage of metaphor and obfuscation.
posted by xchmp at 4:36 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty sure most people here would be overjoyed to hear anything interetsing anyone has to say about Neuromancer, science fiction, society, society through the lens of science fiction and Neuromancer, the last 30 years through the lens of Neuromance, Neuromancer through the lens of the last 30 years, cyberspace as metaphor, metaphors in cyberspace, and even marxism. That sort of thing is bread and butter to us.

But this is none of those things, it's just a hard to decipher set of griping that mostly seems to be wrong about everything as far as anyone can tell what it means.
posted by Artw at 4:40 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


MisanthropicPainforest, I honestly don't understand your bafflement-- I find Jameson no harder to read than your average continental philosopher.

Well, just from the pull quote - it seems a tad glib, at least, to declare something doesn't exist without seeming to have an account of what it would mean for that thing to exist.
posted by PMdixon at 4:40 PM on July 1, 2015


Imagine the same article, but with the valence of so called finance capitalism flipped from negative to positive. You would then have a piece quite at home on the technological-commercialist wing of neoreaction.

Oh christ. Libertarians and tech start-up types are only slightly more obnoxious than this guy, and just as roundly rejected for speaking gibberish.
posted by Artw at 4:41 PM on July 1, 2015


Here's a test to see if you are spouting bullshit that is such a good test that it applies to all sorts of things!

What evidence would support Jameson's argument? What evidence would undermine it?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:48 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Y'all, part of the reason nobody in here who's arguing in favor of giving Jameson's writing a chance is going through the effort of translating it for you or whatever it is you're asking for is because of incredibly bad faith assertions like this:
I'd say one reason is that he doesn't write like that is that he's scared of ever appearing to be wrong. Evidently in his field you have to spend your whole career stating opinions and you're not ever allowed to appear incorrect. So obfuscation really helps with that.
Like, there's really no point in wading through a pool of internet smartassery this deep when it's so obvious that the response is only going to be the next easiest two-bit objection you can reach for in your refusal to engage.
posted by invitapriore at 4:52 PM on July 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


easter queen: ^.^ I was joking, too. I have built my analysis/philosophical skills well outside of formal practice, though, so I'm often dismissed for coming at things from my own idiosyncratic directions; I was riffing on that because it made me giggle.

informavore: He's interested in cyberspace not just as the neurally-interfaced hallucination that Gibson imagined, but as a metaphor for the movement of dematerialized capital--an abstract but powerful system that undeniably surrounds and permeates us in our "meat" lives.

This makes it all the more ironic at how abstracted his language remains. It's difficult from his words to tell if he actually thinks these layers of abstraction are a bad thing, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and assume that, given he's Marxist. However, if he is arguing that abstractions on abstractions create an ultimately untenable situation, and I think it's reasonable to argue the current global economy is untenable, then coaching your critique in yet another layer of abstractions profoundly undercuts your argument!

If abstractions aren't helping, if it's the dual ability to operate on an abstract and on a (objectifying, male-using-female styled) concrete level, then he is missing the latter. Humorously, it could have to do with the lack of women in his discussion, both literally and metaphorically.

In Jameson's description of the book, the male POV literally rides within the body of a female, non-POV character in order to get an experience of concrete reality, having rejected his own body as "meat." Metaphorically, Jameson is so focused on the abstract "cyber" world that he doesn't even have a woman on his "team" to inhabit and use, and thus his arguments are entirely disconnected from the actual experiences of anyone at the mercy of the financial and philosophical systems he is (maybe?) critiquing. His repetition of the male subject's body as "meat" can be seen as either reinforcing the disconnect he feels himself between his mind and body, or it could be seen as a critique of the same disconnect, but the disconnect remains.

In these terms, this is an excellent example of structurally missing the point, but it doesn't do much in terms of advancing a discussion.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:54 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I quit reading around the time he started talking about movement in cyberspace and used as an example a quote from the book wherein the heist team floats into a zero-gee habitat. How can you write about the medium of cyberspace as posited by Gibson without actually distinguishing the meatspace portions of the story from the cyberspace?

Or at least that's how it read to me, I don't really speak Academic.
posted by egypturnash at 4:55 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


That really requires some kind of ACID BURN gif from Hackers or something...
posted by Artw at 5:02 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Or at least that's how it read to me, I don't really speak Academic.

Academic writing is actually very clear and very precise. Its designed to be that way because the goal is transmission of ideas, information, and knowledge in an accurate way. Consequently, its boring. Jameson's writing does not resemble the vast majority of academic writing.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:03 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


1984 totally is science fiction, BTW... I think he's thinking of the other one, with the pigs.
posted by Artw at 5:06 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


"I was walking around Vancouver, aware of that need, and I remember walking past a video arcade, which was a new sort of business at that time, and seeing kids playing those old-fashioned console-style plywood video games. The games had a very primitive graphic representation of space and perspective. Some of them didn’t even have perspective but were yearning toward perspective and dimensionality. Even in this very primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world."

-William Gibson
posted by I-baLL at 5:08 PM on July 1, 2015 [17 favorites]


Animal Farm?
posted by Deoridhe at 5:09 PM on July 1, 2015


Deoridhe: yeah, spot on that gender doesn't get any play in this reading, despite the memorable scene you mention. Definitely like your point about the distant, "neutral" coolness of academic prose. My take is that Jameson doesn't think that abstraction per se is either good or bad--it's just another cognitive tool. It depends on what you're abstracting, what it's being abstracted from, and what the point of doing so is. I suspect Jameson doesn't think that the abstractness of theoretical writing is pernicious, but certainly a lot of folks--feminist theorists among them--have disagreed.
posted by informavore at 5:10 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


After reading the article, it seems to me that the core of it seems to be trying to argue that cyberspace, as it appears in Neuromancer is a analogy for late-capitalism financial systems:
I will argue that this unrepresentable totality, which until now only science fiction has uniquely possessed the representational means to designate, is that of finance capital itself, as it constitutes one of the most original dimensions of late capitalism (or of globalization or of postmodernity, depending on the focus you wish to bring to it).
By "unrepresentable totality", I believe he means the connections "between all the multiple powers and vectors of the real world". After this he goes on about globalism for several paragraphs that seem unrelated to cyberspace at all. In my view, cyberspace is certainly about the representation of the connections between complex networks (both computer and of money and power), and this is something that is part of the modern internet as well.

He makes an interesting point about cyberspace vs simstim being a global vs. local dichotomy, but in talking about simstim, he completely ignores first-person video games and virtual reality. A discussion of Neuromancer without talking about virtual reality seems pretty poor. Also, a conflation of cyberspace with the holodeck misses the point of the fundamental difference between those two approaches.

Also, the slam at 1984 in the opening paragraph seems both petty and totally unrelated to the rest of the article. Strange.
posted by demiurge at 5:14 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]



I always found this interview interesting:

WG: Once I've hit on an image, a lot of what I do involves the controlled use of collage; I look around for ways to relate the image to the rest of the book. That's something I got from Burroughs's work, and to a lesser extent from Ballard. I've never actually done any of that cut-up stuff, except for folding a few pages out of something when I'd be stuck or incredibly bored and then checking later to see what came out. But I could see what Burroughs was doing with these random methods, and why, even though the results weren't always that interesting. So I started snipping things out and slapping them down, but then I'd air-brush them a little to take the edges off.

LM: Isn't that approach out of place in a field like SF, where most readers are looking for scientific or rational connections to keep the futuristic fantasy moving forward credibly?

WG: As I said earlier, I'm not interested in producing the kind of literalism most readers associate with SF. This may be a suicidal admission, but most of the time I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to the scientific or logical rationales that supposedly underpin my books. Apparently, though, part of my skill lies in my ability to convince people otherwise. Some of the SF writers who are actually working scientists do know what they're talking about; but for the rest of us, to present a whole world that doesn't exist and make it seem real, we have to more or less pretend we're polymaths. That's just the act of all good writing.

posted by Artw at 5:17 PM on July 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


Money has lived in cyberspace for a long, long time now, long before a computer existed.
posted by Artw at 5:19 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


"But first it is worth recalling the plot of Neuromancer, if only because it is a dual one whose levels need to be separated from one another. On one of those, this is a heist or caper story, in which a group of characters has been assembled to steal a valuable property (in the event a computer hard drive) from the advanced computer of a powerful transgalactic corporation, whose headquarters is based on a satellite in space. In fact, this ostensible corporate theft turns out to be an elaborate screen for something quite different, namely the junction of the two gigantic computers of these rival corporations, and their unification into the most powerful force in the universe (a story not without its family likeness to Ray Kurzwell’s influential fantasy of the post-human “spike,” and in fact already filmed in the 1970 Colossus: The Forbin Project)."

That's not the plot of Neuromancer. He seems to have lost the plot somewhere in his recollection.

Tesser-Ashpool is not a "powerful transgalactic corporation". It's one of the last aristocracies basically. It's headquarters aren't based on a "satellite" in space but on a space station orbiting Earth. The group has not been assembled to steal a "computer hard drive". The junction is not of 2 giant computers from 2 rival corporations. What rival corporations? It's to create the union of 2 AIs kept separate from each other to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It's not going to become the "most powerful force in the Universe" at all. Where is he getting this from? Also that line completely ignores the little twist at the end of the novel.
posted by I-baLL at 5:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Also, just because i like to post links to William Gibson interviews:

"cyberpunk and cigarettes"
posted by I-baLL at 5:23 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


My take is that Jameson doesn't think that abstraction per se is either good or bad--it's just another cognitive tool.

This contradicts one of the clear sections of that whole article, though, where he sets up the unique metaphor in his interpretation of the book being the POV man leaving his own body and inhabiting 1) cyberspace and 2) a woman acting in the world. It's the ability for the man to hold that duality - in abstraction and in a woman's lived reality - that he positions as unique (again, I'd argue not so, but I am a feminist!) which is contrasted with abstraction upon abstraction in isolation in the form of current global finances.

Unless, of course, he's a Marxist on the side of capital which... well it would be unique.

The contrast of simultaneous global and local also backs up my theory that he is contrasting both/and with abstraction alone, and gesturing vaguely in the direction of the latter not being the best idea maybe. One of the new things brought about by Social Media and the internet in general is the ability for people to put their points of view out there without filtering; in several of the recent horrific acts of racial violence, for example, the points of view of people literally there - via their phone cameras - have been made public; this is the closest we have to "simstim" and experiencing what other people see (but usually not their emotional content, etc...). These "local" events have subsequently become global - usually by design; #blacklivesmatter was a movement supported by a variety of other local social justice organizations all over the globe.

Weirdly, though, his way of discussing any of this remains entirely abstract - in direct contrast to his apparent argument that one needs both. I maintain this is part of an unconscious bias reinforcing structural disempowerment, and that a focus on abstraction continues to reinforce that same thing and is part of the same dynamic he describes in the book and reinforces in his engagement with the book.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:28 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh, man, I'm still reading the article from the FPP and I'm laughing.

"Here, however, in the robbery plot, specializations are certainly present—we need someone to open safes, someone acrobatic enough to get through windows, someone capable of neutralizing the alarm system, someone to drive the car, someone to secure the plans on what is probably going to be an inside job, and finally the brains or the mastermind, who is also the political leader so to speak. But each of these characters will be idiosyncratic: it is a collection of interesting oddballs and misfits, all of them different, and many of them in serious personality conflict with each other. The technological features of the object have thus been humanized and personified if not altogether sublimated: and this new collective mind becomes, like the different instruments of the orchestra, an allegory of the psyche with its inner divisions and contradictions. This utopian projection would then seem to be an allegory of production"

Utopian projection?

The reason for the personality conflicts and the reason why these characters are doing what hey're doing is because they are being manipulated into action by a sociopathic AI. Molly's doing it because she's a professional and because she wants to kill Riviera. Case is doing it because he wants the neurotoxin sacs out of his system. Armitage is doing it because he's an analogue of the personality masks that Wintermute uses to talk to people. It's not a utopian projection. It's a reach by the characters for different goals.
posted by I-baLL at 5:36 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's a fucking heist caper. Are all heist capers now utopian?
posted by Artw at 5:38 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Maybe that's why it seems to always be "one last job before retirement."
posted by I-baLL at 5:39 PM on July 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


We've just got the get up to that floating city and swipe its magnet, then we'll be set for life...
posted by Artw at 5:42 PM on July 1, 2015


Like, there's really no point in wading through a pool of internet smartassery this deep when it's so obvious that the response is only going to be the next easiest two-bit objection you can reach for in your refusal to engage.

Or the emperor's clothes do not, in fact, exist. In Cyberspace or IRL.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:48 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't know what he is trying to say. Maybe he could write clearer?
...
Academic writing is actually very clear and very precise. Its designed to be that way because the goal is transmission of ideas, information, and knowledge in an accurate way. Consequently, its boring. Jameson's writing does not resemble the vast majority of academic writing.

You don't count lit crit or continental philosophy as academic writing, then? (Or Marx?). Because this:
My argument is that Gibson is should best be interpreted in X way. Here is the evidence for this interepretation: A,B,C. This interpretation addressess numerous deficiencies in this other interpretation, E,D,F. In conclusion, this interpretation sheds new light on our common experience of interacting with computers, etc.
and
What evidence would support Jameson's argument? What evidence would undermine it?
Both come straight from the analytic philosophy tradition, which isn't the be-all and end-all here, and might arguably not be a suitable framework for conveying all possible forms of thought.

E.G. If you think that for the types of knowledge you're trying to impart or discuss, warping them into that tradition's "A,B,C to reach X" form will involve a lossy compression, and you aren't willing to undertake that loss, then you will choose to write in another way.

Poets, for instance, are the extreme end of that spectrum, and some of them are capable of conveying complex and interesting thoughts well worth consideration from writing that's ... well, less than clear. Some of them don't even state their premises!
posted by bonaldi at 6:11 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Both come straight from the analytic philosophy tradition

No they come from every other tradition of writing where the sole goal is to present information accurately.

Anyway, what you seem to be saying is that Jameson isn't making an argument so he has no reason to present evidence for an argument, since that argument doesn't exist?

Poets, for instance,

Poetry isn't scholarship nor does it pretend to be.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:18 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Poets, for instance, are the extreme end of that spectrum, and some of them are capable of conveying complex and interesting thoughts well worth consideration from writing that's ... well, less than clear.

If the writing's less than clear, how can you tell if the complex and interesting thought you're considering has been conveyed by the poet?
posted by xchmp at 6:22 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'll bite: mount a defense of Orwell's 1984 as a reflection of serious political thought.

Serious is kind of a weasel word here since you can say ZeroHedge ain't serious, but:

UK PM David Cameron Proclaims: It’s Not Enough To Follow The Law, You Must Love Big Brother

Here is the Guardian story on the Cameron quip which is being paraphrased:

David Cameron to unveil new limits on extremists' activities in Queen's speech
posted by bukvich at 6:24 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


While I was expecting to read the literary equivalent of a the much loved and retold engineering classic, the Retro Encabulator presentation, it wasn't as nonsensical as I had expected. I still disagree with many of his arguments, interpretations, and sometimes even premises. For me the problem lies mostly with the fact that his argument, in this case, only stands if you also agree with nearly all of his interpretations of the elements that he cites to back it up. While I can understand that this is an excerpt, at multiple times throughout the piece I kept thinking it was arriving at nonsensical conclusions. It's not that it actually was nonsensical, but that by the time he got to establishing a point, I had so many differences of opinion along the way (many of them already brought up by others here) that his conclusions seemed arbitrary and nonsensical.

However, on a second run through it seemed a lot less nonsensical, but also that at 81 and a respected scholar, he is still a man of his era, with all the positives and negatives that go with it. How does he use computers himself, and how does he see them in general? Has he ever been immersed in a virtual environment himself, and not just seen others do it in films, TV, and books? While those can produce exceptional visceral experiences, they pale in comparison to the effects I and many others have had inside a virtual environment, most often in the form of simulation games. A book or movie could be scary, exciting, or heartbreaking, but virtual experiences go further and evoke intense physical responses because even though you know you're in a chair looking at a screen, once you are focused on your virtual self, a good part of your brain does not know the difference. The cause may be imaginary, but the effect can be as real as real gets.

Unless he's had those moments of experiencing 'cyberspace' like that or all the other ways you can be immersed or experience what the real-life incarnations of Gibson's literary cyberspace, he seems like a guy who has never flown, trying to talk with authority about what its like to fly.
posted by chambers at 6:26 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Deoridhe: Yeah, on re-reading this in light of your comment, I'm convinced. I had originally thought he was more conflicted about the value of the simstim type of abstraction in particular, since he wants to conclude that "we are both too abstract and too concrete all at once." It looks like for Jameson, what's bad about the abstraction of cyberspace/simstim is that both of them distance us from the real, immediately experienced world, which he strongly associates with something that can only be taken in through the body.

Anyway, there are all sorts of reasons to be suspicious of that quick passage from bodily to immediate to real. Especially in light of your nice example of networked social justice movements, which aim to break out of the postmodern circulation of images and information to actually change the world. Maybe Jameson just assumes that abstraction inevitably leads to passivity--his descriptions of Case as a sedentary recording apparatus make it sound that way. Given his approving mention of "welcome and violent real action" at the end, though, at least Jameson's reading arrives at the correct result that Molly is the book's true protagonist.
posted by informavore at 6:39 PM on July 1, 2015


Every time I wonder if there might be something to this literary criticism stuff, I come across something like the linked essay. And thanks to the commentary here, I know I'm not alone in my deep, deep suspicion that this is a bunch of jiggery pokery and applesauce.

What a pity. I wish there was a serious argument that he was making, that I could actually read and engage with, instead of this un-parseable shit that apparently has deep and abstract meaning if you're part of the in crowd but can't be disagreed with otherwise.
posted by RedOrGreen at 6:43 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


No they come from every other tradition of writing where the sole goal is to present information accurately.

What was it made you think an essay published on a "twice-monthly review dedicated to spirited debate about books" had as its sole goal the presentation of accurate information?

Anyway, what you seem to be saying is that Jameson isn't making an argument so he has no reason to present evidence for an argument, since that argument doesn't exist?

No, what I'm saying is that Jameson is under no obligation to present his argument in the One True Argument Style. And that his choice of style may not be a shortcoming of his. He may in fact be willing to take the risk of some people not engaging with him, if the alternative is to write "clearly" enough that the only engagement he'd get would be skimmers creating strawmen tldr and moving on.

Especially since that would likely cost him the readers who could add value to the "spirited debate" that is actually his goal. Having a high barrier to entry isn't always a bad thing.

I wish there was a serious argument that he was making, that I could actually read and engage with, instead of this un-parseable shit that apparently has deep and abstract meaning if you're part of the in crowd but can't be disagreed with otherwise.

I'm not in the in-crowd, but I do try to be charitable to lit crit when I come across it. I think part of the difficulty is coming to it expecting neat standalone arguments (as I always do), when actually they're generally part of a continuing exploratory dialogue, one not easily summarised by way of introduction. Diving in the middle is always going to be difficult in any field, but to do so a field that's investigating nuance and shade, and writing in the essayist tradition, is going to be exceptionally difficult for anyone, I think.

Or the emperor might not have any trousers. That too.
posted by bonaldi at 7:01 PM on July 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


if you're part of the in crowd but can't be disagreed with otherwise.

Yeah, its just too damn ironic that only the bourgeois has the time and money to invest in learning the argot of marxist literary critics.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:01 PM on July 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


What was it made you think an essay published on a "twice-monthly review dedicated to spirited debate about books" had as its sole goal the presentation of accurate information?

All of Jamesons' writings are like this. Its also an excerpt from a book. I've also read a lot of this stuff.

Here's a more narrow question: why is the vast majority of literary criticism written in this inpenetrable style? If the goal isn't to present an argument and advance knowledge, then why are these people academics? Why do they get to be the only academic discipline that doesn't do research, since that would require evidence and argumentation (which they have eschewed)?

No, what I'm saying is that Jameson is under no obligation to present his argument in the One True Argument Style.

AKA, the style of presenting information that every other academic discpline in the world adheres to.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:08 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Guys, we get it. Our favorite band sucks. Do you have anything else to say?
posted by easter queen at 7:12 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, in the works of Gaiman, a predominant concept is the concept of postcultural narrativity. Contra Gibson, if subconceptualist socialism holds, we have to choose between capitalist neosemantic theory and cultural desituationism. The subject is contextualised into a predialectic Marxism that includes reality as a whole.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:19 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


"It's a fucking heist caper. Are all heist capers now utopian?"

They always have been, have you not read 'Raffles".
posted by clavdivs at 7:23 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


[folks, if you don't have anything to engage with here, please just find another thread.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 7:23 PM on July 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Okay, so one way to read this essay is in terms of what Jameson elsewhere calls "an aesthetic of cognitive mapping." Very very roughly, the idea is that one of the major functions of art is to provide a workable description and analysis of the social world and of the place of individuals and communities within it, in order to empower people to shape that world by concerted action. For Jameson, a major obstacle to such mapping is the huge disconnect between the large systems (economic, political etc) that govern the world on the one hand, and the concrete experience of human individuals and communities on the other. The global economy might as well be the Wrath of God for all that the vast majority of us can do about it. The irony of this predicament is that those large systems are, to a historically unprecedented degree, "human" systems; the modern world is a thoroughly "humanized" world, shaped and controlled by human labor, but labor of the most alienated kind.

For Jameson, the achievement of Neuromancer is that, in its imagery, narrative and form, it dramatizes and makes visible precisely this predicament of a thoroughly humanized world in which humans are completely disempowered. It's not exactly a cognitive map, but it's a powerful depiction of the state of maplessness. The split between global and local, between the abstract world-spectacle of cyberspace and the false immediacy of simstim (where you can have visceral experiences but you can't do anything--"For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes."), is a fictional analogue of the split between "the system" and the disempowered individual or community (the "local community," the heist crew, ultimately has as little real power as any of its members individually). Both the global/systemic and the local/individual are sites of powerlessness--both when he's looking at "the spiral arms of military systems forever beyond his reach" and when he's the passive "passenger behind [Molly's] eyes," Case has no effective agency. What's needed is something in between the global and the local, neither an alienated graph of the whole world nor an immediate assault on your nerve endings but a comprehensible picture of a social world that you can live in and have an impact on; that human-scale picture is what is conspicuously missing both in the cyberpunk world of worldwide conspiracies and cool-ass mirror shades AND in the real world of global flows and private lives.

At least that's a sketch of what I make of this essay. Does that clarify anything for those requesting clarification?
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:19 PM on July 1, 2015 [21 favorites]


Only if you consider what is happening electronically/chemically in our brains and what is happening electronically/mathematically in the computer to be non-material. This is supported if you accept body/brain (or hard drive/RAM) duality, but that duality has been breaking down for decades, scientifically speaking.

I would argue that Jameson does not propose a duality of body and mind; his argument is that totality is a material configuration, and his method is dialectic. He does propose a contradictory sort of duality between concept and ontology (representation and being), but his thought is that there is a synthesis one might arrive at: "Utopia would seem to offer the spectacle of one of those rare phenomena whose concept is indistinguishable from its reality, whose ontology coincides with its representation."

His long-term project is and has always been to look for ways to grasp the totality of the material circumstances that make the whole thing legible, which would also reveal that its workings are contradictory and self-defeating in the long run. These circumstances extend in space and in time; they have both history and location. That's sort of what he sees in Gibson's novel: new ways of looking at this totality.

I'd agree that he would likely see things like race and gender as epiphenomenal in that system if we look at the system from something other than an anthropocentric point of view. (Individual subjectivity is a product of culture in this reading, not an essence that precedes it.) Race and gender are positions or ways of mapping positions within a particular map of the material circumstances, but they are not necessarily going to map out the fundamental contradiction of capital. (This is his version of anti-essentialism, I suppose.)

Rather than essences in themselves, race and gender (and probably sexuality) *when taken for essences* are instead ways of repressing that more fundamental contradiction, of temporarily managing it. I think he might argue that racism and sexism, among other -isms, are among the most effective strategies for masking that deeper contradiction. They have histories and functions within the totality, but he will always see the "deepest" engine of The Way Things Are as capital.

He's also always going to look at functional collectivities as utopian projections; this means he reads the *ensemble* caper genre as reflective of a "utopian impulse," but that is not the impulse of an author so much as a structural feature of the genre. As to where the genre comes from, well, it's generated in some sense by the totality of material conditions. The Freud analogy works here, too: a given totality, because it contains fundamental contradictions, works in part to prevent them from appearing. To the extent that these contradictory aspects and their synthesis become visible, they become visible only through metaphors, dreams, and so forth. It therefore becomes necessary to investigate poetics.

One of the central assumptions here is that some of the things that arise from a set of material circumstances, from a system, in other words, are genuinely reflective of the whole in some sense. These will never be individual persons for Jameson, though; notice that he analogizes individuals to the equivalent of drives within a Freudian mind (or, perhaps, vectors in a complex system). Additionally, they will never be perfectly homologous microcosms; they're always going to be allegories, prophecies, and so forth...distorted and partial views. A total and perfectly accurate reflection of the totality (the whole system and all of its workings, tensions, levels, movements, and coordinates) would be a representation that was in fact ontology. It would be, quite literally, revolutionary.

He has some interesting stuff to say about feminisms in this interview. In particular, I liked this quote:
What I would want to say is that any single-shot kind of politics -- it's true of class as well -- if it doesn't make its connections with the other thematics of a global politics, is going to emerge in tat kind of one-dimensional way. If you look at race and gender and then class, you realize (even though it's a bad word) that a totalizing politics is the only solution....Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, for example, was very much a totalizing operation in which Jackson never talked about women without talking about working-class women and about race; never talked about race without talking about class or gender; and that all of these things had to be done simultaneously.
posted by kewb at 8:30 PM on July 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


At least that's a sketch of what I make of this essay. Does that clarify anything for those requesting clarification?

Then why doesn't he say that
posted by yesster at 9:44 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is something incomplete about this piece -- perhaps because it's an excerpt -- and it certainly isn't Jameson at his most lucid and incisive. This has my "someone is wrong on the internet" impulses firing on all cylinders, but I really ought to be working so I'll keep it brief. I wrote three quarters of this and left the computer for a few hours. kewb and DaDaDaDave left some fuller explanatory comments in the meantime, but mine is sufficiently different that I thought I might finish it.

Jameson's book The Political Unconscious is the most influential book in modern literary studies, though like most influential things the influence is usually felt in a mediated, adulterated way - in this case, one that strips it of the clear focus of its Marxist bent. The book famously begins with a very clear maxim: "Always historicize! This slogan - the one absolute and we may even say 'transhistorical' imperative of all dialectical thought - will unsurprisingly turn out to be the moral of The Political Unconscious as well." For a Marxist, to historicize means to look at modes of production and class relations, of course. Jameson argues that all literary works pose imaginary solutions to social problems. Again, these problems prominently involve class and production. While I doubt everyone here will swallow the Marxist spin on this, I hope it's uncontroversial to say that most literary works feature characters and situations that reflect or allegorize contemporaneous historical situations. This is why people who snicker and say "it's just a caper" miss the point. For Jameson, works are always pointing toward the larger structures of society. Conflicts in stories are not about merely local or private problems, but are mediated, symbolic methods of grappling with large issues.

Jameson believes that all works contain a utopian impulse. They posit conditions under which authentic or non-alienated experience would be possible, although those conditions are often foreclosed upon by political realities. This is what he means when he talks about imaginary solutions. Jameson touches on how this works in Neuromancer when he talks about how capers simulate non-alienated labor. The gang of thieves are both workers and capital, so to speak.

However, predictably, it turns out that this thrilling flirtation with direct experience needs to be qualified in many ways. What excites Jameson about Gibson's novel is that it's a heist novel that innovatively engages with contemporary forms of mediated experience, one that he sees as correspondent with capital's retreat from production to finance.

The contrast of simultaneous global and local also backs up my theory that he is contrasting both/and with abstraction alone, and gesturing vaguely in the direction of the latter not being the best idea maybe.

Deoridhe, you have this somewhat mixed up. Jameson is not condemning abstraction. As you've pointed out a few times, it would be ironic if he were to do so. To put his conclusion in more retro Marxist terms, he sees Neuromancer as reifying common experiences of globality and locality through cyberspace and the simstim. The first is our macro-level view of world systems, the second is our private lives. To be clear, he's not valorizing either side in Neuromancer, although Gibson may do so. Jameson, like Marx, also recognizes that changes to capital alter experience in a dialectical manner, so while he is not "on the side of capital" he appreciates that there is something thrilling about this newly abstracted form (as Gibson certainly does) even as it also creates new forms of oppression.

Fundamentally, Gibson offers a heightened version of our common experience of globality and locality that highlights the contradiction between the two levels. We are too abstract and concrete because each of these scales are heavily ideologized. We pass between them seamlessly without resolving the contradiction. Locally, we recognize human agency, intimacy, etc. Globally, we are in thrall to a system that seems beyond the reach of human agency even though it is built and maintained by people and has no power in itself except through human actions. Marxists believe that the contradictions within a given regime of capital eventually force a transition to a new mode of productive relations. The system we are in, however, is one that hides these contradictions through the production of simulations. When Jameson claims that "science fiction offered a new way to picture our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities," he means that it helps us to understand these contradictions as contradictions, which (particularly on the global level) are so abstracted that their relationship to our personal, local level seems hopelessly distant -- literally beyond the human capacity of understanding. Jameson writes, "someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism." This is the case not because capitalism is unbeatable, but because of this disjunction between the real conditions of subjection in the world and our impoverished perspectives on them. Neuromancer doesn't solve that problem, but it diagnoses it aptly and early, thus this essay.

By the by, I just want to add that people who think this is typical of literary criticism know far less than they think they do about the field and that the folks who think Jameson is the insecure one really ought to examine their actions in this thread.
posted by vathek at 10:58 PM on July 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


I work with complexity a lot, and there are many ways to present complex ideas in digestible ways. I'm very sceptical of writers who seems to go out of their way to _not_ be easily understood. What do they gain from that? It just seems like a defence mechanism to me.

Counterpoint: working in IT, a lot of the writing I encounter is dense with jargon and seemingly normal words used in abnormal ways. While a lot of that is just bullshit to inflate the writer, the reason this language/jargon evolved is because there was an organic need for, to describe new ideas, concepts and ways of working without having to spent three paragraphs on them.

A lot of academic writing is like that and that may be the case here too.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:36 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Then why doesn't he say that

This is not the clincher you think it is. Go read a random paper on molecular biology. It's going to be about a couple of molecules or genes doing things in a cell. It will also most likely go over your head, mostly due to the concepts used. But if it's just about molecules doing things, Then why doesn't he say that?

Well, unfortunately, you are not the judge about which jargon is good and which is bad. If someone needs to reduce a text to your level of comprehension, this is a problem with you and not with the original author.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:19 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Anyone writing literary/critical theory takes it as known by all their interested readers that interpretation of language, and the structures of meaning it both creates and reflects, are constantly moving targets. The 'why didn't he say that' in this thread is ridiculous.
posted by colie at 3:13 AM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I hope it's uncontroversial to say that most literary works feature characters and situations that reflect or allegorize contemporaneous historical situations.

That's as anodyne as arguing that all science fiction inevitably talks about contemporary concerns: truth, but not an interesting truth as it's too broad to do much which unless you immediately contextualise it.

It's of course also not the whole truth about fiction.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:15 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


The whole problem with this essay can be shown in this excerpt as already quoted above:
On one of those, this is a heist or caper story, in which a group of characters has been assembled to steal a valuable property (in the event a computer hard drive) from the advanced computer of a powerful transgalactic corporation, whose headquarters is based on a satellite in space. In fact, this ostensible corporate theft turns out to be an elaborate screen for something quite different, namely the junction of the two gigantic computers of these rival corporations, and their unification into the most powerful force in the universe (a story not without its family likeness to Ray Kurzwell’s influential fantasy of the post-human “spike,” and in fact already filmed in the 1970 Colossus: The Forbin Project)."
None of which is true and all of which could've been checked with a simple reference to Wikipedia. If Jameson doesn't make the effort in getting the details of the novel he's basing his critique on right, how can I trust his reasoning in the rest of the article?
posted by MartinWisse at 3:21 AM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I happen to be a non-scientist who reads quite a lot of molecular biology papers. Anyone can understand what's said in those papers by working through it step by step. Sometimes you'll need to do a bit of research on something. Sometimes you might have to do a bit of research to understand the background research. Sometimes you end up realising you misinterpreted something and have to go back over something you thought you understood earlier.

This is, in fact, the way that everyone learns how to read scientific papers. It's taught in research methods classes. The only difference between the layperson and the scientist is that the scientist starts out with more knowledge and can contextualise and evaluate new information with much greater ease.

I don't think the same can be said about the kind of writing we're talking about here. You don't end up with a stack of stuff you need to understand, so much as knotted loops that refer back to themselves.
posted by xchmp at 3:26 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh man! Thanks for the link, I enjoyed reading it. It seems from skimming the first few comments that many here could not process something written in non-thinkpiece or listicle form. I'm kidding. To get much out of this you need to have some familiarity with Marxism and continental philosophy and the ability to read charitably and carefully. Those who don't didn't need to comment with their boring kneejerk reactions. The guy isn't writing for a general audience. "Why doesn't he write clearly, you know, like a NYT article?" He couldn't give a shit about you not understanding his work. Reading this article without the proper background education is like coming in halfway through a conversation. It's part of a discourse and was written for those already engaged in it, hence the style. Metafilter is probably a bad place for this, based on the first few comments I read. "Hasn't this guy played Minecraft?" good god. Maybe the comments get better, I don't know, but like some of the posters here chose to do with the article, I don't like what I've read so far and I will not be reading any more.
posted by Alterity at 3:37 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't think the same can be said about the kind of writing we're talking about here.

So I assume you've gone through the same process you just described with respect to molecular biology, but dealing with something like poststructural theory?

Or did you pull this claim out of your intuitive ass?

Conjecture: the latter.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:58 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


This thread rocks.
posted by colie at 4:28 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Metafilter is probably a bad place for this, based on the first few comments I read. "Hasn't this guy played Minecraft?" good god.

I bought up Minecraft because of Jameson's ridiculous claim that cyberspace does not exist. Minecraft is a trivial example that shows that it does*. Jameson just simply does not understand the concept of cyberspace, nor does he understand the plot of Neuromancer (as detailed above) nor can he distinguish which parts of the novel take place in cyberspace and which in meatspace (as detailed above).

* OK people don't literally stream Minecraft straight into their brains yet, but they still get deeply immersed in it. Making that immersion deeper is just a question of engineering.
posted by memebake at 4:46 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


People seem to be engaging (or not) with this piece as if it's just another load of obscurantist pomo wankbabble, when in fact it's something quite different: oldschool Marxist verbal impressionist litcrit, which can be really interesting when done well. Jameson doesn't seem to remember much about what actually happens in Neuromancer, but when he addresses the book on the level of themes rather than details there's definitely something there - I think vathek's take on it is a good start. The writing isn't even that hard to follow, if you approach it with a very basic grasp of Marxist terminology and a little bit of good faith.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:52 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


So he's so good at this that he doesn't even need to understand the book properly, and he's still able to reach the amazing insight that its all a metaphor for his favourite political worldview.

The problem I have with this, apart from the obfuscation, is that there's no attempt to deal with confirmation bias or any of the other biases that typically lead thinkers down dead ends. The interpretations are so vague and flexible and the examples so cherry picked that one can interpret anything to mean anything. Its just slicing soup.

I am going to start a 'Cheese Theory' lit crit/pomo movement on the basis that all art is actually metaphors for cheesemaking. So in Neuromancer the chaos of cyberspace is clearly an allusion to the culturing of fermenting bacteria. The tension between the real and virtual worlds is a barely veiled metaphor for the draining of cheese, during which the unwanted water which was so vital to the process must be carefully removed. Etc etc.
posted by memebake at 5:18 AM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I bought up Minecraft because of Jameson's ridiculous claim that cyberspace does not exist. Minecraft is a trivial example that shows that it does*.

In what way is a Minecraft world a really existing material space, or even a space "radically different than the one we inhabit?" Jameson's point is that none of these imaginative technologies -- and he would treat the novel and the networked game as such -- actually supersede the real world. We can imagine they will and project that they do, but underneath them all, at however many layers of removed abstraction, production -- economic activity, "how stuff happens" -- remains profoundly *material*.

So he's so good at this that he doesn't even need to understand the book properly, and he's still able to reach the amazing insight that its all a metaphor for his favourite political worldview.

Errr....no. The idea is that he understands the themes very well even if he jumbles some of the plot details. Most of his analysis doesn't really seem to rely specifically on the plot details as much as on the larger concepts the novel floats. The plot jumbling is embarrassing, but I'm not sure what argument in the piece rests on a plot detail rather than on Gibson's vision of cyberspace.

The problem I have with this, apart from the obfuscation, is that there's no attempt to deal with confirmation bias or any of the other biases that typically lead thinkers down dead ends.

OK, now I'm curious: how, exactly, do you see confirmation bias as applicable to literary interpretation?

The tension between the real and virtual worlds is a barely veiled metaphor for the draining of cheese, during which the unwanted water which was so vital to the process must be carefully removed. Etc etc.

Except that there is little reason to think of the book in those terms. Use the novel to mount an argument about the larger culture or the larger sphere of politics of which it is a part, and you have an interpretation with stakes that flow from the nature of literary writing as an enterprise.

There are reasons, and rather obvious ones, for thinking about what a novel about society and politics might tell us about social and political systems. There are reasons, again obvious for thinking about how a device for representing the world -- a novel, in this case -- might tell us something about the strategies we use to represent things.

Your responses seem to reflect deep rejection or or confusion about most basic purposes of literary analysis, let alone the specifics of a given theory of interpretation. You seem to to want it to be empiricist and quantitative somehow, when the objects of study are qualitative and poetical.

I'm genuinely curious now about what you think the value or function of literature -- if any -- might be.
posted by kewb at 5:33 AM on July 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


Oh, fun fact, Strange Days, whose story was written by James Cameron, is heavily inspired by Gibson. (Incidentally, James Cameron was trying to turn William Gibson's short story, "Burning Chrome", into a movie around the turn of the 1990s) The reason the SQUID devices in Strange Days resemble simstim is because they're based on the idea of simstim. What Jameson's article kinda hints at but doesn't say is that simstim isn't just a visual experience but a recording or a live feed of the sensory sensations of the person recording the simstim. So you can smell the same things, feel the same things, hear the same things, etc. Also, why the SQUID devices in Strange Days are called SQUIDs is because it's a reference to JOHNNY MNEMONIC SHORT STORY SPOILER ALERT what they end up using to get access to the data in Johnny's head in the Johnny Mnemonic short story.
posted by I-baLL at 5:40 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


"but I'm not sure what argument in the piece rests on a plot detail rather than on Gibson's vision of cyberspace."

Well, Jameson's view of Gibson's vision of cyberspace is wrong and Minecraft really is a great example. I posted above a quote in which Gibson wrote about what inspired the idea of cyberspace: early arcade games and seeing people twitch and move as if they wanted to move in the space on the other side of the screen. Cyberspace is that but translated to a form where if you wanted to move you actually moved. It's like amputees hooked up to electrodes who learn to move a robot arm on the other side of the room except the arm is virtual. You're moving in a space that is not the physical space but the virtual space yet it is space. The other big thing that makes up cyberspace is connectivity. The fact that it's a shared hallucination. So the closest thing these days would be playing an MMO with a brain-computer interface. Like World of Warcraft or something.
posted by I-baLL at 5:47 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would just like to say, having skipped the last 80 comments or so, that this essay is coherent to me. It's a nice literary analysis of Neuromancer and its cultural context 30 years on either side, through the lens of Marxist critical theory. The heist as non-alienated productive work! Love it.

Subheads would be nice, but then, I'm obsessed with subheads.
posted by radicalawyer at 5:57 AM on July 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


DaDaDaDave: ... my recommendation for anyone who wants to dispute a point of literary criticism with Fredric Jameson is this: put a little thought into it.

Based on what I'm seeing here, that would be a serious waste of effort. He's starting from bad premises and making dumb conclusions; I'm at a loss to understand why I should make an effort to engage with that, just because someone has a high opinion of him.
posted by lodurr at 6:00 AM on July 2, 2015


kewb: I'll bite: mount a defense of Orwell's 1984 as a reflection of serious political thought. Explain why it counts as a foundational work of science fiction.

Here's the problem, in a nutshell: Jameson is flatly asserting that 1984 has 'nothing to do with' science fiction, which displays ignorance of both popular culture and of the field, and indicates that he's never actually read either 1984 or very much science fiction; and neither he nor you provide any indication of what will be acceptable as "serious" political thought (or even political thought, period).

These are simply your prejudices, reframed as demands. When you've got something more than that -- e.g., an argument that 1984 doesn't have anything to do with SF, or that the political thought that went into it isn't "serious" (along with some account of what it means to be "serious"), then you'll have provided something that merits engagement. Until then...why should we answer those questions?
posted by lodurr at 6:06 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


There are reasons, and rather obvious ones, for thinking about what a novel about society and politics might tell us about social and political systems.

Yes I agree with that, and I think these things are well worth thinking and writing about. But to get anywhere, it has to be done while being very mindful of confirmation bias. I'd say Jameson is doing the exact opposite of that, based on the amount of leeway he awards himself on concepts, interpretation and chains of reasoning. Hence my Cheese Theory example.
posted by memebake at 6:35 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cyberspace is that but translated to a form where if you wanted to move you actually moved. It's like amputees hooked up to electrodes who learn to move a robot arm on the other side of the room except the arm is virtual.

Again, i'd argue that this is what Jameson is talking about when he discusses the way "the production of simulations" abstracts away the material conditions that underly everything and, more critically, prevents people from seeing the way their local efforts or even their virtual networks are incommensurable with the bigger picture. Additionally, they do not seem to stop being representations, even speculative ones, of actual stuff.

You can build a castle in Minecraft; you can even build a computer within the computer. But nothing the players build in Minecraft will ever let the players meaningfully affect Minecraft the IP, or even Minecraft the proprietary network or servers; let alone the larger framework in which IP ownership and so forth work. You don't change your economic relationship to Mojang or Microsoft or Sony by doing any of that stuff. And none of it will ever meaningfully and willfully affect larger political or economic systems.

At best, the virtual economy of something like Second Life is a sort of imaginary prosthesis to the physical economy on which it depends and which it abstractly represents and imitates. It doesn't change or transcend the system of which it is a part. It simply reproduces it at a more abstract level, much as the virtual arm simply reproduces the physical arm -- whether organic or prosthetic -- at a different level of abstraction.

Here's the problem, in a nutshell: Jameson is flatly asserting that 1984 has 'nothing to do with' science fiction, which displays ignorance of both popular culture and of the field, and indicates that he's never actually read either 1984 or very much science fiction; and neither he nor you provide any indication of what will be acceptable as "serious" political thought (or even political thought, period).

These are simply your prejudices, reframed as demands. When you've got something more than that -- e.g., an argument that 1984 doesn't have anything to do with SF, or that the political thought that went into it isn't "serious" (along with some account of what it means to be "serious"), then you'll have provided something that merits engagement. Until then...why should we answer those questions?


Jameson spends some time on Orwell in his 2005 book on science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future, where he argues that Orwell's novel has turned out to be both deeply anachronistic -- the dystopia he imagined was neither much like the Soviet Union of the time nor like much of world-historical significance that happened later -- and mistaken in its time -- because Jameson argues that Stalinism was a contingent set of circumstances that Orwell mistakenly tried to universalize because his first-hand experiences with it had affected him deeply. Stalinism, in Jameson's argument, was not especially portable and could not survive the passing of Stalin himself.

He also has some rather nitpicky arguments that Orwell's society is somewhat self-contradictory: the novel claims both that IngSoc is deeply dysfunctional and anti-science, and that it can produce fantastical inventions like the telescreens and can anticipate, contain, and manage resistance like that of Winston and Julia. Additionally, the scientific elements of the novel -- the telescreen, most notably -- are really not explored as either technology or as social elements. They are more like symbols of surveillance than actual methods of surveillance.Nor is the the economic system that could produce and yet be part of IngSoc investigated in any meaningful way. Think of the roles cyberspace and AI play in Neuromancer's plot and compare them to the role of the telescreen in 1984, for example.

Ultimately, his take is that the novel is neither dystopian -- how things could go wrong -- nor Utopian -- how they could go right -- but rather merely Anti-Utopian. Unlike dystopia and utopia, anti-utopia for Jameson does not successfully imagine either the whole world system nor some genuine alternative. The nitpicky contradictions regarding the IngSoc government's scientific and social engineering capabilities, the limited historical applicability he sees for the novel, and so forth all make him think of it as kind of sham politics rather than a real one. Thus he disqualifies it as a timeless classic and argues that it does not do the kind of work he thinks science fiction writing does.

He further suggests that, to the extent that 1984 still has cultural currency, it does so by being misapplied and misread. Think of how people bring up "Newspeak," which in the novel is an attempt to *simplify* language to the point that any thought opposed to Big Brother becomes impossible. The idea in the novel is that one impoverishes and shrinks thought itself by impoverishing and shrinking language.

But of course this was neither a Stalinist technique nor has it become any other sort of technique in the years since. Yes, the spectre of NewSpeak is invoked against things like "PC" terminology, which are not actually simplifications of language. (If anything, they are *complications* and *add* terms to the lexicon, as many objections to PC terminology will gleefully point out. In contr4ast, even Newspeak's neologisms are crude portmanteaux of simple words.) This is appropriate for Jameson because he sees the original novel was, for Jameson, a misreading of the world situation -- and even the Stalinist situation -- at the time. (Jameson is no defender of Stalin; he just thinks Orwell got the critique wrong.)

His definition of science fiction is of course not the popular one, but Jameson is critical of that definition, too.
posted by kewb at 6:40 AM on July 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


So I assume you've gone through the same process you just described with respect to molecular biology, but dealing with something like poststructural theory?

Or did you pull this claim out of your intuitive ass?


Actually, I have a BA in international relations, so, ironically enough, I'm actually much more qualified to talk about this stuff than I am about anything science-based. I've read post-structuralist essays and papers in a formal academic setting.

But it would be a shame if we had to assume that people were engaging in good faith, I guess. If it makes you feel better, my degree's from a really poorly rated university.
posted by xchmp at 6:41 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Again, i'd argue that this is what Jameson is talking about when he discusses the way "the production of simulations" abstracts away the material conditions that underly everything and, more critically, prevents people from seeing the way their local efforts or even their virtual networks are incommensurable with the bigger picture. Additionally, they do not seem to stop being representations, even speculative ones, of actual stuff.

You're changing the subject. Jameson asserts that cyberspace does not exist, we're saying that he's wrong. Nothing in your answer explains why Minecraft etc should be disqualified from being considered cyberspace.

I mean the internet itself can be described as a form of cyberspace. If real-world consequences to cyber events are part of your defn, then yes Minecraft is out but there are plenty of MMOs with real-world economic effects (Eve Online for example). Hell, the internet itself can be considered a form of cyberspace and it definitely affects the real world.

Jameson does not understand cyberspace and he is flat wrong when he claims it doesn't exist.
posted by memebake at 6:55 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


But to get anywhere, it has to be done while being very mindful of confirmation bias.

You have yet to explain how you apply this concept to literary interpretation. I can see how the concept applies to, say, interpreting experimental results. I cannot see how it applies to interpreting a novel or a poem in any especially useful way.

And I'm still curious about what you think the value of literature really is.

I get that you're very proud of your cheese joke, but it strikes me as some pretty spectacular point-missing. You can certainly argue that Jameson is trying to get at important concepts or ideas in the wrong way, but he does not seem to be asking questions about trivialities as your cheese analogy suggests.
posted by kewb at 6:56 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


"OK, now I'm curious: how, exactly, do you see confirmation bias as applicable to literary interpretation?"

Because if you're fitting the plot and concepts of a story to preconceived ideas that you want to write about then you probably should find a different example that better fits what you want to write about rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. That's what Jameson seems to be doing. He wants to say something but he's using the wrong book to say it.
posted by I-baLL at 6:58 AM on July 2, 2015


You're changing the subject. Jameson asserts that cyberspace does not exist, we're saying that he's wrong. Nothing in your answer explains why Minecraft etc should be disqualified from being considered cyberspace.

It exists as an abstract layer of the current system. It does not exist as a radically different kind of social, political, and economic space. The second sense is what Jameson refers to when he says that it does not exist.
posted by kewb at 6:58 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Comment deleted: please assume good faith and keep it somewhat civil, cheers.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:59 AM on July 2, 2015


"It exists as an abstract layer of the current system."

So does cyberspace in the book.
posted by I-baLL at 7:00 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


kewb - thank you for illuminating his comments on Orwell. I still disagree with his dismissal of 1984 as a classic, but at least I understand where the position came from.
posted by jquinby at 7:04 AM on July 2, 2015


Jameson even quotes the part of the novel that explains cyberspace and it basically describes it as:

"A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system."
posted by I-baLL at 7:04 AM on July 2, 2015


But to get anywhere, it has to be done while being very mindful of confirmation bias.

You have yet to explain how you apply this concept to literary interpretation. I can see how the concept applies to, say, interpreting experimental results. I cannot see how it applies to interpreting a novel or a poem in any especially useful way.


If you just want to analyse a piece of writing and what it means to you, obviously confirmation bias doesn't matter and shouldn't matter. But if you're arguing that a piece of writing tells us something about the real world you are then in territory when you're better off being a bit more scientific (eg using techniques to try and reduce confirmation bias). Unless of course you just claim the real world doesn't exist, but that's just boring because then anything is anything.

Jameson clearly sees Marxism jumping out at him where ever he looks. Either he's right, or he's suffering from confirmation bias. Again, based on the interpretational leeway he allows himself, I'd say its the latter.
posted by memebake at 7:08 AM on July 2, 2015


Because if you're fitting the plot and concepts of a story to preconceived ideas that you want to write about then you probably should find a different example that better fits what you want to write about rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

How do we determine, objectively, the concepts of a story? And how do we determine if a particular reader's perspective on those concepts is objectively wrong? Taken to its logical extreme, it would seem that you are arguing that there is no real literary analysis, simply various forms of summary.

"It exists as an abstract layer of the current system."

So does cyberspace in the book.


Here Jameson would disagree with you, and argue that the book portrays cyberspace as a representative totality of the human system, something beyond the capabilities of any of the examples of "real" cyberspace" thus far provided. Elsewhere in the essay, he discusses this concept thusly: "We thus enter a new era of abstraction and a disembodied state which is indeed that play of signs and signifiers anticipated by the structuralists, and which cyberspace now dramatically embodies in literature and art."

Look again at that quote you have pulled: "A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system." Minecraft is certainly not that, nor is Second Life. The visual images generated in them are constructed for them; they are not parts of some wider networked space that produces consistent perceptual objects out of *all* networked data. A bank that has a Second Life building is not the same thing as a network that detects an existing bank that is part of the network and then turns all of that bank's data into a virtual representation in the form of a building, with virtual locks on doors representing firewalls and password systems and so forth. (frankly, we wouldn't necessarily *want* Gibson's cyberspace, precisely because it so effectively turns abstracted information into physical representations that one can hack into an actual computer system by having one's avatar break down a digital image of a door or manipulate the combination lock of the digital image of a safe.)

Or consider this element of Jameson's article: "[I]in this new and future cyberworld in which his very body is jacked into cyberspace itself, these powerful blocking mechanisms can reach back into the brain of the hacker and short-circuit it." Part of Jameson's point is that the abstracted information of cyberspace cannot yet reach back and genuinely change the structure of things in the "outer space" or "meatspace" around it in this way, or at least not yet.
posted by kewb at 7:23 AM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


It exists as an abstract layer of the current system. It does not exist as a radically different kind of social, political, and economic space. The second sense is what Jameson refers to when he says that it does not exist.

So he doesn't understand what it is then. As I said.
posted by memebake at 7:24 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sorry, lost part of one of my paragraphs:

Here Jameson would disagree with you, and argue that the book portrays cyberspace as a representative totality of the human system, something beyond the capabilities of any of the examples of "real" cyberspace" thus far provided. Elsewhere in the essay, he discusses this concept thusly: "We thus enter a new era of abstraction and a disembodied state which is indeed that play of signs and signifiers anticipated by the structuralists, and which cyberspace now dramatically embodies in literature and art." In other words, stuff liek Minecraft is a "dramatic embodi[ment]" of cyberspace as some total dataspace of all information, but Minecraft does not actually contain all information in the world computer network nor does it allow access to it.

So he doesn't understand what it is then. As I said.

No, my guess is that you do not understand what "radically different" means. How do you see Minecraft or Second Life as "radically different" rather than as simulations or partial extensions of the larger economic, social, and political systems which make up the world?
posted by kewb at 7:28 AM on July 2, 2015


kewb: Have you read Neuromancer?
posted by I-baLL at 7:28 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


A very, very long time ago. And yes, I know that there is no literal "break down CGI door, get teh datas" scene in it. But if Minecraft is Gibson's cyberspace, then what is the equivalent in Minecraft of this:
Ice, the great white sealed and glowing cubes on the horizon, these are the figures for those closed systems into which the cyberhero must penetrate, which he must infiltrate with new kinds of viruses, batter through with mechanisms he has brought with him.
People don't use the Minecraft interface to hack into other servers. Minecraft is procedurally generated, but it's bounded in a way that Gibson's cyberspace is not. A lot of Jameson's argument about cyberspace rests on the idea that Gibson's cyberspace is coextensive with the entire world computer network. The "virtual space" Minecraft lets you access really does not resemble that *except* on a superficial visual level.

Yes, you can go blow up someone's Minecraft house or castle or whatever if you're a jerk, but this is not particularly consequential. You could not bankrupt an institution, steal secret data, or overthrow a government that way. Minecraft space is "local" in Jameson's parlance; the systems cyberspace grants access to are "global."

He's talking about larger political and economic effects in terms of both their scale and their quality. Even in something like EVE, where you can "bankrupt" an in-game company, you're not going to bankrupt the publishers of EVE or even the players who "own" the corporation. If every player-controlled corporation in EVE collapsed tomorrow, no real government would collapse, and the global economy would not particularly notice. Perhaps, if the player outcry were great enough, you'd quickly get a patch or something so that EVE itself could keep running much as certain rules regarding when ships can be destroyed have been patched over the years.

None of these cyberspaces fulfill the criterion of enabling a person or a group of people to meaningfully affect the total world system. It would be hilarious to imagine otherwise.
posted by kewb at 7:48 AM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


If you really have to relate cyberspace to something outside of people's heads, then EMACS and Eclipse are much more sensible candidates than Eve or Minecraft.
posted by xchmp at 8:00 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Jameson asserts that cyberspace does not exist, we're saying that he's wrong.

In that case we'd better make sure everyone is using the word "cyberspace" in the same sense. I mean, I can prove that God exists if I get to refer to my cat as God. Look, there he is!

As kewb has been pointing out, Gibson's cyberspace is a unified virtual representation of all networked information in the world. Nothing like this exists in reality. Things like Minecraft may be cyberspaces, but there's no one cyberspace to rule them all. (The fact that we refer to things like Minecraft, the Internet, etc as "cyberspace," as if they were all parts of one unified thing, is an interesting ideological symptom.)

Readers of Gibson know that this kind of imaginary, fantastic totality is a recurring preoccupation of his. Think of the "order flow" business in Zero History, for example. Part of Jameson's point is that such totalizing fantasies are just that, fantasies, and to the extent that we treat them as "real" we reveal our own ideological entanglement. (Hence his comparison of cyberspace to courtly love and the concept of evil, two other imaginary constructions that have had real-world effects while remaining fantastic.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:04 AM on July 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


Also,

"Or consider this element of Jameson's article: "[I]in this new and future cyberworld in which his very body is jacked into cyberspace itself, these powerful blocking mechanisms can reach back into the brain of the hacker and short-circuit it." Part of Jameson's point is that the abstracted information of cyberspace cannot yet reach back and genuinely change the structure of things in the "outer space" or "meatspace" around it in this way, or at least not yet."

That's not a function of cyberspace. That's a function of the interface medium.

Cyberspace is basically the internet. It's different computer systems accessed through a common network called cyberspace which is accessed through electrodes attached to the head and a console or through a monitor and console. It's a graphical representation of things.

Then there's also the concept of cyberspace which is the virtual world represented digitally. It is space without space.

Minecraft is that space without space and it's also part of the greater cyberspace.


"(frankly, we wouldn't necessarily *want* Gibson's cyberspace, precisely because it so effectively turns abstracted information into physical representations that one can hack into an actual computer system by having one's avatar break down a digital image of a door or manipulate the combination lock of the digital image of a safe."

That's not how cyberspace works in Neuromancer. You might be thinking of the johnny Mnemonic movie.


" But nothing the players build in Minecraft will ever let the players meaningfully affect Minecraft the IP, or even Minecraft the proprietary network or servers"

See, that's not true. Just like the average cyberspace user in the Neuromancer couldn't meaningfully affect the machines which they were using, in the real world normal people using Minecraft can't affect a server running Minecraft but somebody with a bit of skill, on the other hand, can crash Minecraft servers at will with a logic bomb.
posted by I-baLL at 8:06 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


None of these cyberspaces fulfill the criterion of enabling a person or a group of people to meaningfully affect the total world system. It would be hilarious to imagine otherwise.

The sprawl trilogy is about the semi-intentional creation of artificial consciousnesses, true individuals, not just systems, which can manipulate those global systems directly. These are presented as the (mostly) unintended but inevitable spontaneous outcome of a massively-connected data system. The actions of Wintermute in Neuromancer are the primitive flailings of this first stage of life. They get more subtle in the later books.

It's curious to me that he spends comparatively little time on the emergence of the AI inevitability as the new mode, a further mechanism for alienation of first-generation, meat-space humanity from the forces that increasingly control them (which is Gibson's point, imo). Cyberspace and simstim are dross really, stage dressing hiding the real changes happening. Neuromancer isn't just a caper story, that's Gibson's stage magic on full display. The real trick, the one that matters in this book and is expanded upon in the rest of the trilogy, passes largely without comment in the piece, which I found rather puzzling.
posted by bonehead at 8:09 AM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


He couldn't give a shit about you not understanding his work. Reading this article without the proper background education is like coming in halfway through a conversation.

Trying to be charitable because it's not like my posting history is anything to be proud of:

But surely that means that posting this with the entire text of the post being just a quote, with no help at all to people who don't have the relevant background, and when the relevant background is not something most people would have, is not such a great thing to do?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:33 AM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


When Jameson says cyberspace does not exist, we could have a little debate about whether he means cyberspace-as-per-neuromancer or cyberspace-as-commonly-understood-in-2015. Let's go back to the text:

I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day.

I'd say he's referring to cyberspace in general here, because he refers to us, spending time on computers here and now.

Either way, he's still wrong.
posted by memebake at 8:35 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I, too, was put off by some of the comments earlier to the effect that Jameson's piece was too dense or jargony. It's dense, sure, and there are a couple of references to thinkers and ideas I'll need to google up later, but if you've got some familiarity with basic Marxist criticism, you can get through it -- and be rewarded for the effort.

Subheads would be nice, but then, I'm obsessed with subheads.

Absolutely. I mentally added my own, and that helped trace Jameson's argument. (Were this hard copy, I'd have scrawled some in the margins; do "clip and read later" apps like Instapaper or Pocket offer note and comment capabilities?)

It's curious to me that he spends comparatively little time on the emergence of the AI inevitability as the new mode, a further mechanism for alienation of first-generation, meat-space humanity from the forces that increasingly control them (which is Gibson's point, imo).


That is curious, now that you mention it. Maybe it can be attributed to Jameson's decision to focus on Cyberspace (Gibson's Cyberspace) as a metaphor for totality -- all of our myriad interconnections -- as abstracted by postmodern finance, and the utopian impulse toward, er, dis-alienation* as reflected in Case's bridging of the global and local and in the Utopian-ness of the caper genre itself. Jameson is celebrating the novel, after all, because it is the first to "incorporate cyberspace as a radically new dimension of postmodern social life" within a utopian form.

-----------------
I'm blanking on the word for what happens when Marxists finally immanetize the eschaton. "De-reification"? "Unification"?
posted by notyou at 8:37 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'd say he's referring to cyberspace in general here, because he refers to us, spending time on computers here and now.

Well, to me, the sentence you quoted strongly suggests that Jameson is not talking about cyberspace in the everyday vernacular sense. If you take "cyberspace" to mean basically any computer-hosted space that people interact with in an emotionally-invested way, you'd have to be crazy to say "cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day." Say what you will about Fredric Jameson, he's not crazy.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 9:09 AM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


The thing I keep coming back to is that there's very little Jameson is asserting about cyberspace that cannot also be asserted about culture.

Is culture also not real, in the same sense?

If the answer is 'yes', then what, precisely, is the value of this insight?
posted by lodurr at 9:18 AM on July 2, 2015


So to further expand why I think this is curious: consider the control of the various protagonists in Neuromancer.

The freelancers and the unassociated, Case, Molly, Dixie, Maelcum, are all powerless, ultimately. They may present as powerful, Molly is a badass, Case is a wizard decker, as was Dixie, but as shown in the article, this power is largely illusionary. Simstim is a symptom of that powerlessness.

Those in control (apparently) are the usual suspects, aristocratic clans running megacorps, Tessier-Ashpool being the prime example in the books. They control the lives of our freelancers through the usual means of capital and state coercion. Cyberspace is their invention, the latest "system" imposed on the freelancers by the megacorp's technological control. As Jameson demonstrates, this makes their grip all the much tighter.

But let's look below that surface trick, who is really in control in Neuromancer? Molly is primarily controlled through money; she's hired for a job. Case is coerced more directly, through threats of violence and removal of his ability to work. But there's another example: Armitage. He, or rather his host Corto, has lost the ultimate control, of his own body and mind. Who is running him? The emergent cyberspace entity, Wintermute.

Cyberspace in Neuromancer can be viewed as another layer of abstraction, sure. But as all the characters discover, that abstraction, that system, has become self-aware and is now controlling them. this abstract system exerts power through traditional means as with Molly and Case, but even more concretely as the meat-puppet Armitage. Case is powerless in the simstim, reaching for levers in Molly that aren't there. Wintermute has no such restrictions when it comes to Corto.

In the end, the traditional controllers, the leaders of the aristo corps, are powerless too to this emerging power. Wintermute mates with Neuromancer and a new power is born.

I'm not that familiar with dialectic processes, but there's the triad: the controlling megacorp, the alienated working populace and the reified system (the negation-negation or concretization) in the form the the new AIs.
posted by bonehead at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


But surely that means that posting this with the entire text of the post being just a quote, with no help at all to people who don't have the relevant background, and when the relevant background is not something most people would have, is not such a great thing to do?

The link near the end of the post - Fredric Jameson - leads to an overview of Fredric Jameson's life and work - quite a lot of relevant background if one cares to explore it.

There are also links to more information concerning both Neuromancer and William Gibson. I included all these links intentionally so people would have easy access to the relevant background of the piece.
posted by jammy at 10:05 AM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


The insight is that Gibson's Cyberspace == contemporary global finance -- that abstracted layer of money and numbers and derivatives and all the rest that both represents all the social relations among us and hides them from us -- and his novel is notable because it captures this aspect of late capitalism and fits it organically into the work. This is important for Marxist critics, because they value art that accurately reflects the social and economic structures of its time.

The thing I keep coming back to is that there's very little Jameson is asserting about cyberspace that cannot also be asserted about culture.

Is culture also not real, in the same sense?


I think you can rely on the old Marxist "Base/Superstructure" model to see where Jameson falls. Superstructure -- ideology, philosophy, culture -- is "real," but ultimately contingent on the economic base.

I think we all got kinda sidetracked over that pull quote:
cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture. But it is a literary construction we tend to believe in;
That reads to me like praise for Gibson's achievement -- our shared hallucination of where we go when we "go online" takes the shape of a concept and term Gibson conceived (or at least popularized), but which conception is nevertheless contingent on "historical reasons."
posted by notyou at 10:12 AM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


When was global trade ever not abstracted from the day-to-day life of people?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:23 AM on July 2, 2015


Cyberspace, in my understanding of the piece, is being used to represent an abstraction of the underlying financial and technical control system of the interconnected megacorp networks. The architectural metaphor, for example, is that abstraction of the underlying data manipulated by the deckers.

That's why the Minecraft analogy fails. It's not a metaphor for anything, there's no underlying "there" there. We don't use a virtual interface to things like databases right now, we work with the data directly. The cyberspace of Gibson and Vinge may never happen. What we have now is more like Ready Player One, immersive games that don't hook up, beyond trivial ways like micropayments, to the global financial systems. Day traders aren't using an interface like WoW to do their business. In Neuromancer, they are.
posted by bonehead at 10:44 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are also links to more information concerning both Neuromancer and William Gibson. I included all these links intentionally so people would have easy access to the relevant background of the piece.

Apologies -- I don't know what I was doing wrong, but the links weren't showing up link-colored for me.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


chambers: Unless he's had those moments of experiencing 'cyberspace' like that or all the other ways you can be immersed or experience what the real-life incarnations of Gibson's literary cyberspace, he seems like a guy who has never flown, trying to talk with authority about what its like to fly.

What I found bracingly valuable about Jameson's article is that he takes a look at the descriptions of cyberspace in Neuromancer and tries to see what Gibson saw. It's clearly not what we see today when we think of cyberspace. What Gibson was trying to convey is something very different from Minecraft, Second Life, or indeed what we think of as today's internet.

Jameson's reading of it, that the cyberspace in Neuromancer is essentially a place where the intangible realities of modern capitalism become describable object, seems correct to me. Gibson has often spoken about a university lecture he attended in the 70s where an anthropologist argued that the highest form of life on Earth was the multinational corporation. In cyberspace, these become unitary beings, far beyond the ken of human beings, something closer to gods. This description from Neuromancer is about that, I think: "Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems forever beyond his reach."

On that reading, the AI characters Wintermute and Neuromancer are something closer to demigods, emanating from the higher corporate realm, taking on something close to human form; avatars in the Hindu sense of the word.
posted by Kattullus at 12:17 PM on July 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


If he's responding to the idea that the highest form of life is the multinational corporation, then I'd say what he's doing is asking "what's next?"

Wintermute and its ultimate mature form (which doesn't have a name) are not in any sense manifestations of corporations. They're not avatars and they're not gods (or demi-gods), much as they might seem that way to us.

It seems to me that the much closer analogy is to call them offspring.

It's a way of imagining the first plausible successor-form of the "successor" that Clarke claimed we'd created.

Honestly, all this analysis strikes me as an effort to claim Gibson for LitCrit. He's an SF writer once everything is said and done. That's his worldview, and what SF writers do (or at least, what they did when he came of age) was keep asking "what's next?" And that's what Wintermute is.
posted by lodurr at 12:25 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is what I was trying to get at above, if cyberspace is a metaphorical terrain, the AIs are the accidental inhabitants the builders, the megacorps, never really intended. Wintermute was supposed to be a better tool for control, at most another more powerful analysis engine or and ICE. Wintermute, it's revealed, has other agendas. Neuromancer is about the rebellion of the AIs in opposition to the corps, with the uninvolved humans as its unwitting pawns.

That's what's frustrating to me about the essay: he's talking about the dangers of the territory created by the corps to regular people, but he ignores the native predators, who are more dangerous by far (what happens to Corto is beyond creepy), and who have their own inhuman agendas.
posted by bonehead at 12:40 PM on July 2, 2015


lodurr: It seems to me that the much closer analogy is to call them offspring.

Yes, exactly. That's that I meant by calling them "demigods, emanating from the higher corporate realms". They're not the same as the "green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America" but they're not human either, but some kind of amalgam of the two. "Offspring" might just be the right term.
posted by Kattullus at 12:41 PM on July 2, 2015


Kant might even say a synthesis.
posted by bonehead at 12:42 PM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


On Jameson's handling of the term Cyberspace:

So DaDaDaDave and kewb are saying that Gibsons cyberspace is like a UI on top of the real world, so you can rob a bank in cyberspace and get real world money etc. Well, true we havent got anything like that. The internet itself is somewhat like that, but with a simple text based UI. Its within our reach to use Minecraft as an interface to everything else (I could potentially code a system that allowed myself and others to go shopping and pay bills using Minecraft). But that would be really annoying. So, ok perhaps that's what Jameson meant. Lets return to the text:
I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture.
Why does Jameson say 'nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it'? I can only think of 3 interpretations:

- he thinks Cyberspace in Gibsons novels is some magical realm and your IRL body disappears while you're in it. (The fundamental point of cyberspace is that you are still there IRL while you're in it, surely he knows that?)
- he means in terms of immersion, that we have no virtual medium so immersive that people forget about their IRL bodies. In which case I think plenty of people would argue with that.
- he is just stating the obvious - that Cyberspace is not 'real life' and so 'is not real'.

So which is it? Given his complete misunderstanding of the space station scene (he thinks it happens in cyberspace), failure to grasp the plot, and apparent failure to notice some of the more interesting things going on in the novel, I'm not really prepared to cut him any slack here.
posted by memebake at 1:28 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


We don't use a virtual interface to things like databases right now, we work with the data directly.

The main interface that I use to work with databases is a structured command system that pretends (not very well) to be a hybrid of human language and set theory. This interface is usually embedded within a simulation of a teletype printer. The virtual teletype printer inhabits a heavily compromised pretence of a small section of an office desk. And this not-quite-a-desk exists within a virtual machine, which itself is inside a second, different not-quite-a-desk simulator. Only then do you get to anything you can kick when it starts making an odd whirring sound.

We're already using virtual interfaces everywhere. Data is itself an abstraction (it's what you get when you structure information, which allows you to treat it as if it has meaning. You can't wander around in it, but I'm not sure how that would make it any more virtual or abstract than it already is.
posted by xchmp at 1:31 PM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


Honestly, all this analysis strikes me as an effort to claim Gibson for LitCrit. He's an SF writer once everything is said and done.

This sort of attitude has always seemed weird to me, whether it's coming from cultural absolutists who think genre fiction is beneath them or (more often in my experience) from self-proclaimed anti-elists who bizarrely think they're doing their preferred genre a favor by denying its critical interest. SF is fair game for literary criticism, because it is a form of literature. You can tell because it's made of words.

if cyberspace is a metaphorical terrain, the AIs are the accidental inhabitants the builders, the megacorps, never really intended. [...] Neuromancer is about the rebellion of the AIs in opposition to the corps, with the uninvolved humans as its unwitting pawns.

I think this aspect of the novel fits nicely into Jameson's reading; the AIs are both a radical embodiment of the alienating, inhuman character of the social world under late capitalism and a utopian recuperation of that alienation, in the sense that at least there's some mind capable of grasping the global totality, even if it's a non-human mind. It seems to me you could extend Jameson's reading of cyberspace as an imaginary response to planetary financialization to cover things like stories about renegade AIs, "the singularity" etc. If cyberspace is the Platonic idea-world of finance capitalism, singularitarianism is its millennarian theology.

Incidentally, the element of weird pseudo-Platonic idealism in Gibson's (or perhaps just Case's) notion of cyberspace, the way it frees you from "the meat," is important to Jameson's reading and to the sense in which he claims cyberspace does not exist. Cyberspace is, in a not entirely literal but still crucial sense, another world, a higher world where you can see things that are hidden from you in "meatspace." (Even if you believe that the military-industrial-financial complex runs the world, you can't SEE that in the normal world, the way you can see the "spiral arms of military systems" in cyberspace. "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.") But in the actual world, even if sometimes modern information technology makes it seem like you have immediate, intuitive access to some kind of global totality, that is an ideological illusion, a simulacrum. Quoth Thom Yorke, "Just 'cause you feel it, doesn't mean it's there."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:29 PM on July 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


Apologies -- I don't know what I was doing wrong, but the links weren't showing up link-colored for me.

Thanks for noting that, ROU_Xenophobe. Cyberspace without links is definitely a confusing place. :)
posted by jammy at 2:59 PM on July 2, 2015


you can't SEE that in the normal world

A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.
posted by xchmp at 3:30 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


OK I read (almost) all the comments in this thread.

Jameson's magnum opus is still in print! It is from 1992 so it's 23 years old of the same generation as Neuromancer. In 23 years 14 people have written Amazon reviews which seems very small to me.

If you think all postmodern guys are impenetrable elitists, I invite you to sample Paul Fry Introduction to the Theory of Literature from the Yale free online courses. What I liked most about them is he seems to have a modest self-deprecating humor about the whole project. I can't recall which episode he covers Jameson in or I would point to it; also if you happen know which one it is please tell me because I I would like to go watch it again.
posted by bukvich at 4:32 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oops forgot a link. Marxists . org has the first two chapters of Postmodernism culture logic late capitalism online.
posted by bukvich at 4:35 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


At best, the virtual economy of something like Second Life is a sort of imaginary prosthesis to the physical economy on which it depends and which it abstractly represents and imitates.

This year 205,530$US (51,382,533$L) was raised in Second Life for Relay for Life. In most virtual worlds the in-world money can't be exchanged, but Second Life's economy is explicitly different.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:07 PM on July 2, 2015


I-baLL: "Tesser-Ashpool is not a "powerful transgalactic corporation". It's one of the last aristocracies basically. It's headquarters aren't based on a "satellite" in space but on a space station orbiting Earth."

Tessier-Ashpool is a family that's specifically run as a corporation, and they're certainly powerful. While "transgalactic" is an exaggeration, they're probably not restricted to doing business on Earth.

Distinguishing between a "satellite in space" and "a space station orbiting Earth" seems overly pedantic. A space station is a satellite, and if it's in Low Earth Orbit, like the ISS, it's at a few hundred kilometers above Earth, well above the 100 kms altitude where space starts, so it's "in space" (the term "space station" could also have tipped you off).

So yeah, there are mistakes here, but you might be nitpicking a bit much.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:21 PM on July 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


.... self-proclaimed anti-elists who bizarrely think they're doing their preferred genre a favor by denying its critical interest

I am certainly an example of the former, but I would never do the latter. However, I don't have much regard for the institutional practice of literary criticism. It's intellectually bankrupt, as far as I can see.
posted by lodurr at 8:57 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


... DaDaDaDave and kewb are saying that Gibsons cyberspace is like a UI on top of the real world ...

If that's what they're arguing, they're missing some important bits. Like how Wintermute in its post-Neuromancer state isn't bound to a particular piece of hardware on the net. It exists in cyberspace and manifests there (and can extend itself to manifest IRL as well).

Cyberspace is a UI onto RL only in the same sense that we are a UI onto our bodies.
posted by lodurr at 9:01 AM on July 3, 2015


"Distinguishing between a "satellite in space" and "a space station orbiting Earth" seems overly pedantic."

Freeside is basically a city in space. It is owned by the Tesser-Ashpool family but they're only physical based in the Straylight Villa part of the station. But, yeah, I guess if he's using the word "satellite" like the moon is a "satellite" then okay.
posted by I-baLL at 12:00 PM on July 3, 2015


"So DaDaDaDave and kewb are saying that Gibsons cyberspace is like a UI on top of the real world, so you can rob a bank in cyberspace and get real world money etc. Well, true we havent got anything like that. The internet itself is somewhat like that, but with a simple text based UI."

Cyberspace exists then. The UI isn't necessarily graphical but the notion of space is in there. Let's I use a desktop at work to remote into a laptop which might have tor set up and I use it to access a hidden service onion which hosts a shell which I then use to browse freenet. This is a bullshit example but the point is that I'm "moving" from one "place" to another which doesn't necessarily correspond to physical space. So the notion of a governed space does exist.

And, yes, in real life you can rob a bank in cyberspace and get real world money.

The earliest known heist that I'm aware of is from 1994.

I'd reply more but I've got to go.
posted by I-baLL at 12:26 PM on July 3, 2015


If that's what they're arguing, they're missing some important bits. Like how Wintermute in its post-Neuromancer state isn't bound to a particular piece of hardware on the net. It exists in cyberspace and manifests there (and can extend itself to manifest IRL as well).

It's not what I'm arguing, and from my reading of the posts, it's not what DaDaDave is arguing, either. It's certainly not what Jameson is arguing. I feel that a lot of what's going on here is people who read Gibson as a prophet of real-world technology who then retroactively try to fit what we call "cyberspace" to what Gibson calls "cyberspace" when they are quite different.

Part of Jameson's point is that this an ideological operation...and a mistaken one, at that. In this respect, Katullus explains one of the valuable elements of Jameson's essay quite well. For Jameson, part of the metaphorical or figural value of Gibson's cyberspace is that it suggests a way to imagine and orient oneself within the "global" level of the whole set of economic, political, and social relationships that make up what he terms "late capitalism:"
My argument has been that in the face of the impasses of modernism, which proved unable to handle the new incommensurabilities of that greatly enlarged and as it were post-anthropomorphic totality which is late or third-stage capitalism, science fiction, and in particular this historically inventive novel of Gibson, offered a new and post-realistic but also post-modernistic way of giving us a picture and a sense of our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities to think them. This is the sense in which literature can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit, and in which Neuromancer stands [as] a precious symptom of our passage into another historical period.
Gibson's fictional Cyberspace simulates, with great fidelity, the larger networks and relationships of the global level of the capitalist society the novel portrays, a society that is an oblique and partial representation of our own.But the individual may as well not exist in this level, where the actors are multinationals and, later, the meergent AIs. '

Simstim, the other "pole" of the dialectic Jameson identifies, simulates forms of local and "individual" experience, experiences whose very possibilities are structured and determined by those much larger webs of interconnection, production, and so forth that are the "global" social and economic realm. Jameson argues that this determinism often occurs in ways no individual can perceive, let alone affect. The two levels of representation are in contradiction; you can't "see" the Simstim experience at the same time you "see" cyberspace, but some way of seeing both simultaneously or at least seeing the ways one affects and connects to the other would be necessary to "see everything," to grasp the totality that all of these levels and their various relationships make up.

In this sense, then the case of a person who hacks a bank account and gets real money out of it does into really offer this kind of understanding of "the" totality. The charity campaign of Second Life does not do this either. They may or may not be microcosms, but they are symptoms on the order of Gibson's novel. (Well, of a lesser order, really, since they offer less insight and are by definition not prophetic.) He is talking about ways of understanding one's historical period; talking about being absorbed in the act of coding or about hacking bank accounts or even about raising real money in a networked sandbox game is listing symptoms, but it is not the whole diagnosis. It is certainly not the whole of the condition the diagnosis means to describe.
posted by kewb at 12:38 PM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Let's [say] I use a desktop at work to remote into a laptop which might have tor set up and I use it to access a hidden service onion which hosts a shell which I then use to browse freenet. This is a bullshit example but the point is that I'm "moving" from one "place" to another which doesn't necessarily correspond to physical space. So the notion of a governed space does exist.

But look at how many layers of abstraction you have to interpose to "move" in that way, or even to characterize it as movement. Even the terms -- "onion" and "shell" -- suggest that you are working in metaphor as much as anything. This what Jameson means when he says that we can only *think* cyberspace as a kind of artistic dramatization of what is "really" going on. UIs don't show you what you are doing; they disguise and abstract what you are doing into a visual, verbal, or mathematical language that works for individuals.

But these languages -- we might go further and say "representational strategies" or "methods of cognitive mapping" -- are not sufficient to let you represent or grasp the totality of the global operations of which this particular action is a small, perhaps an infinitesimal part. The tools we have to conceptualize those much larger systems, concepts, and movements, in turn, are useless for representing the kind of "local" scale of activity you describe. ("Local" does not mean physical space, or at least not just physical space; it has more to do with the level and scale of intention or action that fits with individual persons rather than global systems.)

The "global" systems and their movements have profound, often imperceptible effects on individuals; conversely, the whole sum total of individual or "local" action in some way corresponds to the "global" field of play. The problem is that we have no way to represent *in full,* with any real fidelity, how that happens on either end. We can create partial and distorted pictures using figures of speech, mathematical equations, computer code, and the rest, but that's all. And conversely the institutional and systemic actors on the "global" field cannot represent individual persons as individual persons. As probabilistic matches to demographic profiles, yes, or as broad types or bits of data, sure...but not as the individuals themselves *are* or how they experience *themselves* and their "local" scales of action and environment.
posted by kewb at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


"But look at how many layers of abstraction you have to interpose to "move" in that way, or even to characterize it as movement. Even the terms -- "onion" and "shell" -- suggest that you are working in metaphor as much as anything. "

I have time for one small comment but:

Those aren't layers of abstraction. "onion" and "shell" are words with specific meanings. They are also, in a way, "places" with their own "space." We say "go into this directory" or "move up a level". We're using spatial terminology because we are "moving" through data. We "go" onto Metafilter. We treat these things as locations. That's the concept of cyberspace. It doesn't have the same UI (though we can make UIs like it or just copy the UI from the novels minus the electrodes.) Saying that cyberspace is a "literary construction" shows a misunderstanding of the concept.

" UIs don't show you what you are doing; they disguise and abstract what you are doing into a visual, verbal, or mathematical language that works for individuals. "

UIs do show me what I'm doing. I can't read binary. And binary itself is a representation of an electrical state. And hex is a representation of binary. UI doesn't "disguise". It's an interface. I posted a quote from Gibson above about where he got the idea for "cyberspace" from. I don't understand what point you're arguing and trying to make anymore.
posted by I-baLL at 1:28 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


We say "go into this directory" or "move up a level". We're using spatial terminology because we are "moving" through data. We "go" onto Metafilter. We treat these things as locations. That's the concept of cyberspace.

You are so used to the metaphors you use to interact with and understand computers that you have forgotten that they are metaphors. Computers allow us to do things across spatial distances, but the mechanisms for this do not resemble the spatial metaphors we use to conceive of information networks and their interactions as "movements through virtual space."

UIs do show me what I'm doing. I can't read binary. And binary itself is a representation of an electrical state.

You realize that you are making Jameson's argument for him here, right? You are admitting that these are representations and that the "space" in cyberspace is a metaphor rather than a real dimension of space through which things move.

Look, if I open up a hard drive or a server rack, I'm not going to be able to see a literal stack of HTML blocks, and a directory on a hard drive is not literally written on top of the part of the part of the drive where the files or subdirectories it contains are written. (In fact, this would erase those files and subdirectories by literally overwriting them.) Cyberspace is a useful navigational metaphor for that stuff you can't read or see, the stuff you mentioned in your response. But it is not "space" except as a metaphor. We can visualize it and even manipulate it that way with a UI, but that is a very indirect representation of what is actually going on.

Consider that Gibson's cyberspace offers a kind of direct interaction that really isn't plausible, not even with a fancy UI. For one thing, to do everything he suggests -- simulating the kinesthetic experience of zero gravity, produce the sound of a clattering printer a room away to attract our attention to a process, and so forth -- would be both extremely difficult and grossly inefficient for the sorts of things programmers and hackers actually use computers for. Certainly they do not seem like the sort of UI a hacker would use; nor, for that matter, do the Mozilla and Janus UIs you posted links to. If Gibson's cyberspace is just a UI, it's a super-skeuomorphic one...and yet Gibson portrays this as if his super-skeuomorphism were a sort of super-isomorphism. The shapes of things and the motions of things in cyberspace, per Gibson, are *what those things are and how they are moving.*

This is in part because Gibson presents his cyberspace not only as a full sensorium that displays the entire world information system to users, but also as a place such users could mentally inhabit and experience *just as they do their own bodies and the physical environments around them*. You hear that printer a room away, and getting to it requires the same sensory and mental work as getting up and walking (or perhaps floating) to another room in response to a sound. It is not just a space, but a space you can inhabit *like you inhabit your body.* That's past skeuomorphism, and would suggest a state in which you can genuinely exchange your physical body for an avatar without *any* meaningful loss of sensory experience.

Here, try it this way: imagine a rose, an actual rose that you hold in your hand and smell. Now imagine a photograph of the rose. We might say "that's a rose," but as with Magritte's famous painting of the pipe, it's not a rose; it's merely a picture of a rose. Now imagine a 3D rendering of the rose on an Oculus Rift display that moves when you move your hand. Would you call it a rose?

Now, imagine a physical space, just as you did the rose....
posted by kewb at 2:34 PM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


You know, notyou actually said this above a lot better than I ddi, so I'll quote that post:
The insight is that Gibson's Cyberspace == contemporary global finance -- that abstracted layer of money and numbers and derivatives and all the rest that both represents all the social relations among us and hides them from us -- and his novel is notable because it captures this aspect of late capitalism and fits it organically into the work....[O]]ur shared hallucination of where we go when we "go online" takes the shape of a concept and term Gibson conceived (or at least popularized), but which conception is nevertheless contingent on "historical reasons."
The fact that the hallucination is shared and is in fact so comfortable that we forget it's a hallucination does not mean it is ever anything besides a hallucination.
posted by kewb at 2:38 PM on July 3, 2015


Here, try it this way: imagine a rose, an actual rose that you hold in your hand and smell. Now imagine a photograph of the rose. We might say "that's a rose," but as with Magritte's famous painting of the pipe, it's not a rose; it's merely a picture of a rose. Now imagine a 3D rendering of the rose on an Oculus Rift display that moves when you move your hand. Would you call it a rose?

Imagine a rose, an actual rose that you can identify by its signature phytopheremones and understand that it is fulfilling its purpose, facilitating the reproduction of the latest in a lineage of plants that have grown from the soil we share, whose return to that soil feeds us in the ongoing cycle of growth and decay. Now imagine a solution of a handful of chemicals that seem similar to the rose. We might say, that's a rose, although it merely tastes somewhat similar. Now imagine those scents elaborated and compounded with vastly more skill, the deeper notes of auxins layering and adding subtlety to the brash esters of bloom, its constituents changing through the phases of day and night as it bends towards the sun, as its petals open and close. Would you call it a rose?

Now imagine you could not sense the rose with your normal phytochemical recognition processes and instead had to make sense of its existence through the reflection of energetic particles - the same ones that we turn into sugar in our leaves - off its surface and onto patches of light-sensing cells on our own surface. Not even all the particles, but only those with very specific frequencies. We might call it a rose, we might think that we see it 'open' and 'close' in a similar way to the changing gradients of the chemical signals it releases into the soil and air, but it would not be the real thing - it could only be a metaphor.
posted by xchmp at 3:05 PM on July 3, 2015


How would we distinguish either of these roses from a hallucination of a rose, or from the image we get in our minds by reading an evocative written description of a rose?
posted by kewb at 3:31 PM on July 3, 2015


Also, your analogy is about using different senses to detect the same physical entity. But the claim for cyberspace is that you can use the *same* physical senses *in the same way* to detect an entity in real space as you would use to detect and locate an entity in cyberspace.
posted by kewb at 3:33 PM on July 3, 2015


If "up" in cyberspace is not actually vertical movement -- and it really isn't -- then what does it mean to call it movement in the first place, except metaphorically? In what sense is that movement "really" movement, and the imagined "space" in which it happens really "space?" I mean, in the end, you're not so much proving that cyberspace is an actual space as you are making the old argument that we cannot talk about space and movement in any sort of unified way at all, because the concepts indicate totally different things in different contexts.

The way that the plant or insect in your first paragraph interacts with a rose will not be the way it experiences a digital image of a rose. The way a person experiences a rose in your second paragraph will not be the way a person interacts with a digital image of a rose. And in neither case does the digital image become an "actual" rose; it will always be a representation of one.
posted by kewb at 3:50 PM on July 3, 2015


No, my point is that our senses are themselves an interface and an abstraction. Your objection to ideas of cyberspace that employ metaphor and abstraction appears to rely on our everyday perception being less abstract and metaphorical than, for example, the spatial metaphors that we might use when describing hierarchical data representations. In shifting the perspective of your rose thought-experiment to a plausible alternative I'm arguing that your idea of our usual perceptions being 'real' while other interfaces are 'metaphorical' is parochial. Limiting concepts of cyberspace to an arbitrarily privileged set of abstractions excludes what is important and interesting about the idea. What you and Jameson see as foundational and central to the concept seems like an implementation detail to me, as relevant as whether I wrote this by jabbing at a keyboard, swiping a touchscreen or speaking at a voice-to-text app.
posted by xchmp at 4:25 PM on July 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


No, my point is that our senses are themselves an interface and an abstraction. Your objection to ideas of cyberspace that employ metaphor and abstraction...

My objection, and Jameson's, is that by definition *all* ideas of cyberspace are *purely* metaphor and abstraction.

....appears to rely on our everyday perception being less abstract and metaphorical than, for example, the spatial metaphors that we might use when describing hierarchical data representations.

It...sort of is less so, since it corresponds to physical reality in a way that is far more direct and less mediated than any form of "cyberspace." If your argument is that the primary experience of our physical senses do not in some way correspond to physical entities, you are not arguing that cyberspace is real, but rather that physical space is *not* real.

But if you argue that our physical senses do allow us to perceive a physical reality, then you are stuck trying to explain how we can distinguish a convincing dream or hallucination from reality, and by extension, how we can tell a metaphorical construct or a notional environment from a real one.

If you want to say that the notional is as real as the real, then you have to explain how you know you are not a butterfly dreaming of being a person, rather than a person reading a sentence about dreaming butterflies.

In shifting the perspective of your rose thought-experiment to a plausible alternative I'm arguing that your idea of our usual perceptions being 'real' while other interfaces are 'metaphorical' is parochial. Limiting concepts of cyberspace to an arbitrarily privileged set of abstractions excludes what is important and interesting about the idea.

I pointed out the implausibility and irrelevance of your supposed "alternative." Both of your examples assume a material rose in some way, and thus neither of them is the refutation you imagine it to be. There is some object off of which light is bouncing. Is it your contention that the image of a file folder on a computer screen is light bouncing off of a tiny file folder? Does the image of the folder contain little files in the way an actual file folder contains actual files?

Look, I will agree that there are physical connections between computers, usually electronic signals and electronic pulses traveling through wires. These things propagate through plain old physical space, and when we consider how many networked devices there are and how many signals are being sent through the air and through wires all the time, it is rather overwhelming.

In order to make sense of all that, we imagine and talk about this stuff called cyberspace; as our technology has gotten better, we even create complicated ways of making our computers display images that fit our mental image of this "cyberspace." But this makes that image no more a real space than CGI images of aliens on a film screen makes aliens real, or calling your significant other "honey pie" means that they are a pie filled with honey. Drawing a picture of what is in your mind does not make the thing real; neither does getting a computer to draw it for you. An isometric projection of lines on a screen is not actually space.

What you and Jameson see as foundational and central to the concept seems like an implementation detail to me, as relevant as whether I wrote this by jabbing at a keyboard, swiping a touchscreen or speaking at a voice-to-text app.

You haven't fully understood the stakes of the argument, then.
posted by kewb at 4:58 PM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


To expand on the idea a bit, movement through space is not the well-defined thing you're suggesting. If I'm driving a car, it's pretty clear that my movements and the car's movement are, if not the same, very closely linked. The same still seems true if I'm sitting in the passenger seat. But what if I'm on a ferry crossing from England to France and decide to walk around the the ship? Am I back where I started or have I zigzagged? If I walk from fore to aft, matching the speed of the ship, have I moved or stayed put? Or both?

My definition of movement and its relationship to the spaces I inhabit are constructed. Spatial metaphors work because they are a generalisation of the concept of space. It's entirely meaningful to ask what shape a circle would be in a world where movement could only happen in the cardinal directions (a circle in that world would look like a square does in this one, with its corners located at equal distances along each of the cardinal directions of the space). If you run a business in a city built on a grid system and want to work out how many competing businesses are within a mile of your shop, then the circle you want to draw on a map will have straight edges.

If you want to say that the notional is as real as the real, then you have to explain how you know you are not a butterfly dreaming of being a person, rather than a person reading a sentence about dreaming butterflies.

I'm saying that notional and real are not opposites, but two ways of considering the same thing from different levels of abstraction. Considered from one point of view, a chair is a physical object and we can assign meaning to it within that context - I can infer from its chair-ishness that I can sit on it. From another perspective, a chair is a symbol of power and using knowledge about the use of status symbols within the culture I live in, I can infer that I should sit on the other, less appealing chair because I want the job I'm about to be interviewed for. And when I get the job, there's another level of abstraction I can work in: Now the chair is a fungible object with an asset tag and I don't care who sits in it as long as they don't peel off the bar-code sticker. In some sense, all of this is an emergent phenomenon of the interaction between incredibly large numbers of femions and bosons. Which of these abstractions is 'real' and which is 'notional'?

It's all abstraction, all the way down. Your objections about confusing the real with the notional are about confusing different levels of abstraction. Of course it's ridiculous to think that images that represent physical objects share all the proprerties of physical objects. But why would we want them to? The representation is useful precisely because it affords different actions and conceptual frameworks that allow us to gain different kinds of knowledge.
posted by xchmp at 5:43 PM on July 3, 2015


It's all abstraction, all the way down. Your objections about confusing the real with the notional are about confusing different levels of abstraction. Of course it's ridiculous to think that images that represent physical objects share all the proprerties of physical objects. But why would we want them to? The representation is useful precisely because it affords different actions and conceptual frameworks that allow us to gain different kinds of knowledge.

In other words, you do not understand the difference between representation and ontology, between concepts and things.
posted by kewb at 6:07 PM on July 3, 2015


In other words, you do not understand the difference between representation and ontology, between concepts and things.

Ontology isn't a subject with a single true answer. In general, it's possible for two people to disagree about their conclusions without claiming that anyone involved lacks the ability to understand the argument's basis. However, it's not possible or interesting to debate anything with someone who thinks "you're wrong becuase you're ignorant" is a reasonable position to take and doesn't read like a child stamping their foot.

So, that's me done.
posted by xchmp at 9:24 PM on July 3, 2015


I didn't say you didn't understand ontology. But, no, your argument does not seem to reflect any understanding of the difference between concepts and things. By arguing that "real" is just one more level of abstraction, you open up the problem of identifying what the abstraction we call "real" corresponds to. You solve this problem, or try to, by claiming that there is nothing but an endless chain of abstraction.

But this has the consequence that the endless series of abstractions you propose has no ground at all. No abstraction could be better or worse than any other, because there is nothing, in the end, that abstraction need correspond to. There is then no way to talk about the fidelity of representation or even the relative value of one or another abstraction. If all existence is abstraction, then there are no things at all, or at least no definition of "thing" which matters; in the view you present, being itself is subsumed entirely by the concept.

If we are arguing about whether or not cyberspace is a metaphor, your most recent set of propositions renders that argument impossible to have. If all things are abstractions, it becomes almost impossible to define the word "metaphor," because it is no longer clear how a metaphor would operate when the distinction between the figural and the literal has been effectively abolished. And your argument also gets us into serious problems if we have to discuss false or faulty representations or concepts, because it becomes very difficult to say how a concept or representation could be false in any final sense. A lie becomes only a truth from another perspective, and there is no longer any reason to prefer any particular perspective.

My concept of cyberspace, or Jameson's, differs from yours, but you cannot prove to me that your concept is "better" in any sense I or anyone else would be bound to accept. You might reintroduce the concept of utility, but then you would have to explain how we gauge utility in a field where everything can be abstracted up or down the chain, with no end in sight. And I could always claim that at the level of abstraction I am interested in or am operating at, my concept of cyberspace as unreal because it is fundamentally unlike physical space is more useful than your concept of it as real.
posted by kewb at 4:15 AM on July 4, 2015


But nothing the players build in Minecraft will ever let the players meaningfully affect Minecraft the IP, or even Minecraft the proprietary network or servers; let alone the larger framework in which IP ownership and so forth work. You don't change your economic relationship to Mojang or Microsoft or Sony by doing any of that stuff. And none of it will ever meaningfully and willfully affect larger political or economic systems.

Up to a point. But cf . the current Reddit troubles and the way in which the users/"customers" can impact. Also of course, Minecraft's value is built by its players, even if the things they built in Minecraft don't affect anything.

And there, again, this is only up to a point. Even apart from the publicity the more audacious constructs bring to Minecraft, there is a real value in the building of these constructs to the people building them and admiring them. You can't just wave that away as some sort of updated opium for the masses even that's partially true as well.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:02 AM on July 4, 2015


Wintermute and its ultimate mature form (which doesn't have a name) are not in any sense manifestations of corporations. They're not avatars and they're not gods (or demi-gods), much as they might seem that way to us.

It seems to me that the much closer analogy is to call them offspring.
Vile Offspring even, to namecheck a certain Scotland based sf author of this parish, who wrote several novels about finance based AIs going viral and what happens when the cyberspace superstructure on top of the reality substrate goes self aware and does directly influence the material world.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:19 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


And there, again, this is only up to a point. Even apart from the publicity the more audacious constructs bring to Minecraft, there is a real value in the building of these constructs to the people building them and admiring them. You can't just wave that away as some sort of updated opium for the masses even that's partially true as well.

I don't think Jameson is saying it's an updated opium for the masses, exactly. But I think we could all three of us agree that building something in Minecraft, however admired it is by the user base, is different than the strike-like activity going on at Reddit. And none of it much resembles Gibson's vision of cyberspace, nor does it ratify the claim that we have now "realized" Gibson's vision of cyberspace in some way. (Jameson would argue that "realizing" cyberspace is a contradiction in terms.)

What Jameson -- and I, in this case -- would argue is that even the "strike" at Reddit does not appreciably change the larger dynamics of workers and owners, whether it changes the internal corporate culture of Reddit or not. And one could also point out that the gains made by organized labor through much more drastic sorts of action are being slowly rolled back; if the larger system remains in place, it will always revert to its basic conditions over time.

Beyond this, Jameson is arguing that immaterial labor inherently limits the kinds of changes that can be made, and that talking about immaterial labor as immaterial disguises the underlying material concerns of all labor in rather problematic ways. I think he'd find considerable irony in the fact that the Reddit mods are fighting the admins because the admins have made it difficult for them to do unpaid managerial work for a for-profit corporation. It would be hard to identify a better example of false consciousness.

One could say the same for Minecraft; players get subjective pleasure out of Minecraft, and I imagine there's probably some sort of economy of players paying others for their play in the game, but this is an odd example of subcontracting one's leisure time. (I'm thinking of stuff like gold-mining in MMORPGs and so forth; surely there's someone somewhere who's paid another person to help them build their cool Minecraft castle or whatever.) But all of those people are giving the publishers of the game actual money in exchange for the opportunity to generate value and publicity for the publisher. The player can add value to the game, but in the economic sense that value is always captured by the company that owns the game and not by the player.

Second Life is a little more interesting in this regard, because there are potentially mechanisms for earning a lot of real money that doesn't ultimately flow to Linden Labs; they've created a little microcosm of a regulated financial industry that acts as a prosthesis to the larger one. But of course there is considerable controversy about the terms of service around Linden dollars, which specify that they have no real-world value.

And Linden has of course manipulated the rate at which people can earn Linden dollars in various ways, manipulating exchange rates and so on. The Second Life player still ends up largely in the position of a laborer like any other laborer; they can;t change the character of the labor relationship because Linden will never let them do that. And ultimately Linden could simply unilaterally delete or totally devalue everyone's Linden dollars at will, or convert the entire game environment to a different economic system, or what have you.

So Second Life ends up feeling a lot more like a simulation of an economy than an actual economy, and certainly the players, even as a mass, lack the sort of "political" power they have in relation to the real governments Linden Labs imitates. You could not stage a revolution against a tyrannical Linden Labs form within Second Life the way you could stage a revolution against a tyrannical government from within the borders of the nation. It's a good example of the dangers of mistaking a second-order abstraction for the real world-system.

Ultimately, then, it does no good to celebrate limited, contingent events -- things that are only significant "up to a point" -- if what you want is world-historical change. We can argue about whether or not that's a workable view of history, but then we're arguing with Jameson's assumptions, not just this specific diagnosis. Basically, we'd be re-arguing some form of liberalism vs. Marxism.
posted by kewb at 5:37 AM on July 4, 2015


Saying that cyberspace is a "literary construction" shows a misunderstanding of the concept.

No. That's wrong too. It's trivially true that cyberspace is a literary construct, not a real place the way the desk you sit at to look at your pc is, but this is not a new insight. Indeed, it's so obvious that Tom Tomorrow was making cartoons mocking the idea of cyberspace as a real place back in 1993.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:42 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


And none of it much resembles Gibson's vision of cyberspace, nor does it ratify the claim that we have now "realized" Gibson's vision of cyberspace in some way.

No, of course not.

The problem with Gibson's view of cyberspace was that it was always wrong, even at the time of writing, created by somebody with no computer knowledge ex nihilo at a time when the "real" cyberspaces were first being constructed and started becoming self aware (in the sense that the people in them became aware of them as separate places from actual physical reality).

Real world cyberspace doesn't work like that because it can't work like that. It's one of the reasons Neuromancer has always been much more admired outside of heavy internet/computer nerd circles than inside it.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:48 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ultimately, then, it does no good to celebrate limited, contingent events -- things that are only significant "up to a point" -- if what you want is world-historical change. We can argue about whether or not that's a workable view of history, but then we're arguing with Jameson's assumptions, not just this specific diagnosis. Basically, we'd be re-arguing some form of liberalism vs. Marxism.

Going into that would be not even re-arguing liberalism vs Marxism, as doing over the whole of socialist history, the second time as farce. That viewpoint is not all that different from that of e.g. the council communists who'd argue that no industrial action is useful unless it directly contributes to the revolution, back in the 1920s.

But what I think is going wrong in the debate here is that you and Jameson are engaging in a specifically Marxist discussion, but his critics here lack that context or even reject it. (Myself, I'm just nitpicking).

Outside that context, Jameson's view of cyberspace is, if not entirely wrong, less defensible.

What I would like to see though is Jameson engaging the whole of the cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk tradition, rather than just Neuromancer because authors like Sterling, Scott, Stross have grappled with some of the same concerns as he is talking about and have provided answers.

Not definitive answers by any measures, but anybody concerned with cyberspace in a marxist context might want to look those up.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:02 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that Minecraft's EULA expressly prohibits players from "trying to make money froma nything we've made," and it also includes the standard clause for most such snadbox games:
If you make any content available on or through our Game, you must give us permission to use, copy, modify and adapt that content. This permission must be irrevocable, and you must also let us permit other people to use, copy, modify and adapt your content. If you don‘t want to give us this permission, do not make content available on or through our Game. Please think carefully before you make any content available, because it will be made public and might even be used by other people in a way you don‘t like.
In other words, the player may take pleasure in the digital "stuff" they create and they and other players may find aesthetic value in them, but Minecraft actually owns them. We can argue that personal satisfaction or shared enjoyment is still a form of value, but we get into dangerous territory when we say that it is just as good as material value.

No. That's wrong too. It's trivially true that cyberspace is a literary construct, not a real place the way the desk you sit at to look at your pc is, but this is not a new insight.

Even if we reject Gibson's vision of cyberspace as mere literary invention, cyberspace in common parlance remains a metaphor -- a whole conceit -- for a bunch of hardware/software/UI/user/publisher/service provider/manufacturer interactions. Jameson's argument is in part that insisting that cyberspace is "real" in any robust ontological sense covers up the complexity of those relationships, especially what he consider key parts of their economic and political character. In fact, part of why we like the conceit of cyberspace is that we can't grasp all that stuff in relation to ourselves.

Sticking so resolutely to the spatial metaphor for using networked devices and interacting with networked data becomes an obstacle to gaining that kind of understanding. Talking about cyberspace using the convenient metaphors of physical space gives us the illusion that a given user understands all of that -- and he really means *all* of that -- in relation to themselves, but of course the sheer complexity of it all exceeds the metaphor at a certain point.

And I think there are some good reasons to take that argument seriously. We like the conceit so much that we try to approximate the visual ideas it gives us with various UI innovations, even to the point of arguably wasting computer resources (and plastic, and all the stuff we use to make the UIs and their peripherals). People are so into this version of cyberspace that we spend a lot of money, time, and energy trying to achieve this skeuomorphic fidelity to *actual physical space* or to a completely inaccurate, impossible literary construction. It may be trivially true that Gibson's cyberspace is "wrong," but we sure don't seem to treat that as trivial. We end up rejecting how far he takes the metaphor, but not many of the basic conceptual features of that metaphor.

Within the cyberspace metaphor, this becomes clear whenever the metaphor breaks down. For one thing, "pure" cyberspace would seem to be a space without any locations; think of your older relative who asks, "But where's the cloud?" We say that it's "all around us," but either we're talking about plain old physical space filled with electronic signals and various servers of various sorts, or we're mistaking a metaphor for reality.

Again, you can argue that the metaphor is good enough for what everyday life requires, or that there is not much worth in understanding the relationship of some limited subject or set of actions in relation to the totality, but that's a bigger argument than one about an interpretation of the cyberspace concept or Gibson's novel.
posted by kewb at 6:09 AM on July 4, 2015


Going into that would be not even re-arguing liberalism vs Marxism, as doing over the whole of socialist history, the second time as farce. That viewpoint is not all that different from that of e.g. the council communists who'd argue that no industrial action is useful unless it directly contributes to the revolution, back in the 1920s.

Right, but I'd argue that the current Reddit dispute is already something like labor history the second time around, as farce. Again, it's a bunch of people who were doing volunteer moderation work for a for-profit company who are upset about the owners' conduct. They're not fighting for better pay or benefits, they're fighting to keep their total lack of pay and benefits. It's like a bad parody of a lockout.
posted by kewb at 6:17 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Real world cyberspace doesn't work like that because it can't work like that. It's one of the reasons Neuromancer has always been much more admired outside of heavy internet/computer nerd circles than inside it.

Sterling, slightly over exuberant, back in the 90s:

A science fiction writer coined the useful term "cyberspace" in 1982. But the territory in question, the electronic frontier, is about a hundred and thirty years old. Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. The indefinite place out there, where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.

Although it is not exactly "real," "cyberspace" is a genuine place. Things happen there that have very genuine consequences. This "place" is not "real," but it is serious, it is earnest. Tens of thousands of people have dedicated their lives to it, to the public service of public communication by wire and electronics.

People have worked on this "frontier" for generations now. Some people became rich and famous from their efforts there. Some just played in it, as hobbyists. Others soberly pondered it, and wrote about it, and regulated it, and negotiated over it in international forums, and sued one another about it, in gigantic, epic court battles that lasted for years. And almost since the beginning, some people have committed crimes in this place.

But in the past twenty years, this electrical "space," which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional -- little more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone -- has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-inthe- box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.

Because people live in it now. Not just a few people, not just a few technicians and eccentrics, but thousands of people, quite normal people. And not just for a little while, either, but for hours straight, over weeks, and months, and years. Cyberspace today is a "Net," a "Matrix," international in scope and growing swiftly and steadily. It's growing in size, and wealth, and political importance.

People are making entire careers in modern cyberspace. Scientists and technicians, of course; they've been there for twenty years now. But increasingly, cyberspace is filling with journalists and doctors and lawyers and artists and clerks. Civil servants make their careers there now, "on- line" in vast government databanks; and so do spies, industrial, political, and just plain snoops; and so do police, at least a few of them. And there are children living there now.

People have met there and been married there. There are entire living communities in cyberspace today; chattering, gossipping, planning, conferring and scheming, leaving one another voice-mail and electronic mail, giving one another big weightless chunks of valuable data, both legitimate and illegitimate. They busily pass one another computer software and the occasional festering computer virus.

We do not really understand how to live in cyberspace yet. We are feeling our way into it, blundering about. That is not surprising. Our lives in the physical world, the "real" world, are also far from perfect, despite a lot more practice. Human lives, real lives, are imperfect by their nature, and there are human beings in cyberspace. The way we live in cyberspace is a funhouse mirror of the way we live in the real world. We take both our advantages and our troubles with us.


I'd say the main thing that's changed since then is that it's become so prevalent nobody really thinks of it anymore, and the word "cyberspace" itself has gone from trendy cool neologism to overused uncool cliche to retro peice of nostalgia.

But cyberspace is still the abstract place where we hold our phone calls/have internet debates/put our data on the cloud - it's not "real", but is important.
posted by Artw at 6:18 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


kewb: But this has the consequence that the endless series of abstractions you propose has no ground at all. No abstraction could be better or worse than any other, because there is nothing, in the end, that abstraction need correspond to.

Not really understanding how you proceed from 'an endless series of abstractions' to 'no abstraction coulbe better and worse than any other.' Because in the end, if the abstractions are in series, then by definition they correspond to the abstraction that preceeded them.
posted by lodurr at 6:48 AM on July 4, 2015


But cyberspace is still the abstract place where we hold our phone calls/have internet debates/put our data on the cloud - it's not "real", but is important.

I don't think Jameson is arguing that the existence of networked devices and our use of them are unimportant. He is arguing that these data networks and our interactions with them embed a whole bunch of political and economic relationships that become invisible when we take the abstract concept of cyberspace too literally or accept it too uncritically.

There's a way in which distinguishing cyberspace from physical reality makes it easy to trivialize the material consequences of all the relationships and interactions that "cyberspace" reduces to a single word or a small set of limited metaphors. If nothing else, we want to acknowledge that, say, streaming data or uploading to the cloud is a physical process that takes place in real space and time. It happens fast, and we've done a lot of infrastructure work to make sure it seems like it's location-independent, but anyone who has ever had a bad connection knows just how "definite" the location of data (in the form of signals) really is. There's a lot of physical work happening, in other words; much of it automated in various senses, but physical work nonetheless. As Martin Wisse says, this all of course trivially true and no revelation at all.

But strangely, it is easy to forget this trivially true thing, and in a way our culture encourages us to do so by insisting so strongly on the metaphor. We might think about how conceptualizing data networks and networked devices as a sort of "indefinite space" to which we grant the force of reality makes it easier for corporations to play games with the law. They get to have it both ways: they fight to "own" ideas and information in perpetuity by analogizing them to physical property in their possession, as if this "space" could contain and locate ideas in just the same way they construct and locate constituted physical objects; and at the same time they disempower consumers by redefining the purchasing of physical objects like a Blu-Ray or a compact disc as merely licensing the content on them. (Who then owns the actual disc on which the data is physically inscribed?) Pointing out the economic injustice here requires us to break out of the cyberspace/indefinite dataspace metaphor, or at least to critique it.
posted by kewb at 6:52 AM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


martiwisse: Vile Offspring even, to namecheck a certain Scotland based sf author of this parish, who wrote several novels about finance based AIs going viral and what happens when the cyberspace superstructure on top of the reality substrate goes self aware and does directly influence the material world.

While I think Stross is much, much closer to the mark on the likely reality of emergent AI, that's actually kind of irrelevant for the question of whether Wintermute is manifestation or offspring. We always need to remember that prediction isn't the job of a f/sf writer. (Any really interesting SF is fantasy.) Gibson is asking "what does it look like when the kids leave home and self-actualize?" Stross is asking "what does it look like when we immanentize the capitalist eschaton?"

what, so charlie stross is bloody mary or something? we can's say his name?
posted by lodurr at 6:59 AM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


kewb: ... a whole bunch of political and economic relationships that become invisible when we take the abstract concept of cyberspace too literally or accept it too uncritically.

That's certainly true, as far as it goes, but they become even more dangerously invisible if we don't take cyberspace literally enough.
posted by lodurr at 7:01 AM on July 4, 2015


Because in the end, if the abstractions are in series, then by definition they correspond to the abstraction that preceeded them.

But then you are granting a kind of ontic priority to the preceding layer of abstraction, and at the point where we can no longer keep peeling away layers of abstraction we end up with the layer to which we grant the highest ontic priority: this, then, we would call reality and treat as reality in a way distinct from any other layer, because it will always be "more real" and "less abstracted" than any other layer. It might be possible to find that it, too, is the abstraction of another layer "below" it, but until we can actually do that, we treat the most ontically prior layer as our ground, as real.

More generally, if we can determine that one layer of abstraction precedes another, then we allow in at least a conditional operation of "de-abstraction;" if layer n is abstract, we can define something as an abstraction of it, a sort of 2n or n to the second power. (Indeed, Jameson uses the metaphor of "powers of abstraction" in his essay!) But this then implies perhaps a root n layer that is prior to the n layer of abstraction.

Eventually you will have to define a limit, a place separating the abstract from whatever is beyond abstraction. This would be reality. You can also --but do not need to -- identify the other limit as transcendence, which might be reached by adding layers of abstraction, and orient yourself towards that. Or you can simply say it's reality at both ends, in the same way that negative infinity is just infinity, which lies nowhere in the series in between.

The point is that once we admit a discernible order of abstraction operations, we also admit that there is some horizon, some limit to the operation towards which we are oriented and which grounds the whole thing. Of course, this assumes that we can orient ourselves with regard to the operation of abstraction in the first place. If we can't orient ourselves, or if there is no defined order of abstraction as an operation, we are back at the older problem of not being able to make any sort of verifiable truth-claims that penetrate any frame of reference other than the one in which the claim has been made.
posted by kewb at 7:04 AM on July 4, 2015


OK, so we're back to actually addressing the substance of the argument? Cool.

But this has the consequence that the endless series of abstractions you propose has no ground at all. No abstraction could be better or worse than any other, because there is nothing, in the end, that abstraction need correspond to.

Yes, this is what I'm saying, except it's a foam of abstractions, not a chain. As I said earlier, data is what you get when you structure information. An abstraction is a way to structure information and the act of abstraction generates meaning. Some abstractions - user interfaces for example, - are intentionally constructed, while other abstractions are emergent, arising as a consequence of their underlying structures. For example, the physical world appears to be atomic (things either happen or don't happen), consistent (facts cannot contradict other facts) and persistent (once something's happen it has always happened.) This arises from quantum particles and fields that do not have the same properties at all. At the quantum level, things can unhappen (see quantum eraser experiments for example) and things are only constistent eventually, so exists in a state of transient self-contradiction. The question of how one arises from the other is the central problem of theoretical physics. Is quantum physics more valid than relativity? What would that even mean?

There is then no way to talk about the fidelity of representation or even the relative value of one or another abstraction. If all existence is abstraction, then there are no things at all, or at least no definition of "thing" which matters; in the view you present, being itself is subsumed entirely by the concept.

Abstractions structure information and turn it into data. Data is another way to say 'things'.

If we are arguing about whether or not cyberspace is a metaphor, your most recent set of propositions renders that argument impossible to have.

Yes. That's what I've been, quite openly and explicitly, saying. My argument is that Jameson's ideas about cyberspace are obvious and dull because the things he thinks are interesting about it are actually ubiquitous. What else did you think I meant when I said it was abstractions all the way down?

If all things are abstractions, it becomes almost impossible to define the word "metaphor," because it is no longer clear how a metaphor would operate when the distinction between the figural and the literal has been effectively abolished.

Not really. Most metaphors are explicitly constructed as figurative representations of something else.

And your argument also gets us into serious problems if we have to discuss false or faulty representations or concepts, because it becomes very difficult to say how a concept or representation could be false in any final sense. A lie becomes only a truth from another perspective, and there is no longer any reason to prefer any particular perspective.

These are not problems. You think that value derives from an underlying truth external to the abstractions that we use to make sense of the world. This seems baseless to me. I think that making sense of the world is what generates value. Whether something is a truth or a lie is a matter of whether it makes sense (is it consistent with the way we think the world is?). A truth may be a lie from another perspective. But what does that mean, except that truth depends upon what we take as axiomatic? You want there to be reasons to prefer a particular perspective over another. I don't think there are any reasons - I think that our perspectives are our preferences. We make sense of the world by the way we structure it. When we act in ways consistent with our perspectives, we're making the argument for their validity. If I think that humans have universal and inalienable rights, then I can understand some of the world as supporting or undermining those rights. And by acting consistently with that way of understanding the world, I make the argument that this is a valuable perspective. Human rights only exist because we behave as if they exist.

My concept of cyberspace, or Jameson's, differs from yours, but you cannot prove to me that your concept is "better" in any sense I or anyone else would be bound to accept. You might reintroduce the concept of utility, but then you would have to explain how we gauge utility in a field where everything can be abstracted up or down the chain, with no end in sight. And I could always claim that at the level of abstraction I am interested in or am operating at, my concept of cyberspace as unreal because it is fundamentally unlike physical space is more useful than your concept of it as real.

How do we guage utility in a field where everything can be abstracted? We talk about it and agree (or disagree). You seem to suggest that arguments are about identifying the truth. I think that in most cases arguments are about persuasion, not necessarily of the person who you're arguing with. (Sometimes, for example in legal matters, we agree on our terms and rules and can make arguments about whether something is true within those terms or not). I'm not arguing that you're wrong because your arguments are based on lies, I'm arguing that you're wrong because my way of looking at the world is more useful that yours. We may disagree about what 'useful' means - that's not a problem for me.
posted by xchmp at 7:25 AM on July 4, 2015


Because it was driving me crazy that I couldn't find out the name of the anthropologist who came up with the idea that multinational corporations are the highest form of life, I made an AskMe post.
posted by Kattullus at 7:38 AM on July 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


This arises from quantum particles and fields that do not have the same properties at all. At the quantum level, things can unhappen (see quantum eraser experiments for example) and things are only constistent eventually, so exists in a state of transient self-contradiction. The question of how one arises from the other is the central problem of theoretical physics. Is quantum physics more valid than relativity? What would that even mean?

The question is less about whether one is more valid than the other, but rather about why both are more valid than, say, the theory of the luminiferous aether or kinetic theories of gravity, to take two examples. In other words, why are these two models -- despite the inconsistency that arises between them -- more valid than the unified models others have proposed?

The answer is of course that both quantum mechanics and relativity theory correspond more faithfully to what you later call "emergent abstractions," without quite naming what they emerge *from*: something about the structure of information itself, which makes up the ontological ground. The "depth" of correspondence between an emergent abstraction and the properties of conditions from which it emerges becomes the test of its validity, with the level "most valid" taking the role of "valid" until such time as a "more valid" alternative arises.

At any given point, we to operate "as if" the "most valid" available abstraction or abstractions ; reasonable preferences only arise if we have some way of determining what constitutes "most valid," that is, if we are comported towards "validity." And this validity must in turn rest on qualities of the information from which we generate abstractions;l abstractions that grossly distort or contradict these qualities of information drift from the ontological substrate: they are "nonsense" because they are "unrealistic." In any other direction lies error, the frustration of purpose and preference by unintended and unexpected disutility. Our approach to reality is attenuated, but it has direction.

Think of it this way: if no one understands the way electromagnetism works, then there are no computers and the abstraction called cyberspace never arises, for it has neither purpose nor any orientation towards the reality that conditions purpose. But one can understand electromagnetism, build a computer, and even use a networked device without resort to the abstraction called cyberspace.

This suggests that cyberspace is more convenient than needed, and moreover that it does not grant us greater proximity to the emergent structure of information about the physical universe (which here becomes crudely synonymous with the term "information;" information is physical, after all.) Other abstractions do; they are thus "more valid" than cyberspace, which is thus idiomatically "not real" in the way that those abstractions which for us are presently most proximal to the qualities of information that are the reason certain abstractions possess consistent, emergent properties not reducible to -- and sometimes in conflict with -- the preferences of any given "abstractor."

(I have some problems with the way you use the term "abstraction" as if it were a synonym for "mediation," if only because there are media that are not understandable entirely in terms of willed abstractions. But let's go with it for now.)

Most metaphors are explicitly constructed as figurative representations of something else.

I don't know that this definition of metaphors is coherent, because I'm not sure how you think we determine a distinction between things if all we have are abstractions based on information. Every metaphor is also a not-metaphor from some other perspective, and what is figural in one abstraction would have to be literal in another.

The metaphor is as much a thing as what it represents; representations are therefore things in themselves as well as the mere mediation of things. Only contingencies of momentary purpose allow any sort of distinction, and the utility of this distinction is ephemeral.

If the distinction between the figural and the literal is contingent, then you are in fact rejecting the distinction between representation and reality. This leads to some rather obvious philosophical problems, and leaves us with mere solipsism or at least the problem of mutual incomprehension. I can never be sure if we are employing the same abstraction, and so I can never be sure if you are speaking literally or figuratively. If all I can do is make my own meaning without any way to refer to anyone else's meaning, then persuasion and encouragement -- the things you connect to ethical action -- are impossible. (If they are possible, you will need to show where this condition of possibility rests, at which point we will have a valid externality: reality, or at least a more valid approach to reality that posits one abstraction as impersonally "more valid" than others.)

As I said earlier, data is what you get when you structure information. An abstraction is a way to structure information and the act of abstraction generates meaning. Some abstractions - user interfaces for example, - are intentionally constructed, while other abstractions are emergent, arising as a consequence of their underlying structures. For example, the physical world appears to be atomic (things either happen or don't happen), consistent (facts cannot contradict other facts) and persistent (once something's happen it has always happened.)

Our approach to material reality may be highly attenuated, but this is not the same thing as saying that all abstractions about it are equally faithful (or faithless). (If we define the cosmos as mere information, then presumably information *is* material or is in some way "bouncing off of" material like your photons. At the quantum level, there are observer effects, but even observer effects are not unlimited. In any case, they do not seem to produce macroscopic effects, and we are macroscopic beings. Even so, the material nonetheless precedes the information and one or another of its properties still remains unchanged by the medium of information.) But then you still identify some ontically prior layer in the form of the emergent structures of certain abstractions, which we would trace back to some quality or property of the information itself.

The discourse of quantum physics and relativistic physics are mediations that enable us to interact with some underlying structure of being about which we lack either information or the needed approach to that information -- which we might variously call abstraction or metaphor. We as beings are parts of this structure as well, which complicates the task but does not render it impossible.

I must object here to your casual use of the term "interface" as if it were a medium; consider that an interface is, even in the parlance of cyberspace, something that rests "atop" the actual operations of the computer rather than *being* those operations. Indeed, this is why you can treat interfaces as trivial: the underlying structure where the outcomes occur is not changed by the interface itself. Only our relations to the interface change; a person incapable of speech due to injury or genetic variation cannot use text-to-=speech at all. One of the problems of simply declaring that there are different cases of utility based on preference is that there are obvious examples where an abstraction or an interface provides zero utility due to something other than mere preference.

You can of course object that the person without the power of speech as a matter of biology could employ other mechanisms to generate speech, which would then generate text. But even leaving aside the case of utility, we would encounter a problem of economics: to buy excess equipment is expensive, and not everyone can afford it. Again, we have an external condition which no level of individual abstraction will abstract away. This hypothetical person might even prefer to engage in the multiple interface structure of some reason, but their preference does not produce the ability to do things in just the way they would prefer.

Reality, then, might be defined colloquially as that part of your condition and the conditions around you that do not care what you think of them, but which still obtrusively affect and shape your subjective experience and produce inputs into your utility calculus that cannot be entirely accounted for, and even override mere preference. This is in some sense the basis of modern economics, but it is also the basis of modern physics, biology, etc. In other words, there are whole realms of abstraction to which declarations of personal or even group preference are less than trivial.

For this reason, the divide between quantum interpretations of microscopic phenomena and relativistic interpretations of macroscopic phenomena points not to the arbitrariness of both, but to an error of abstraction or to some form of information we have missed, either int he process of abstracting that information into data or in the more basic process of receiving the information at all. Consistency of observation and the emergent structures that render some abstractions "reproducible" even to skeptical observers -- observers who, by definition, are looking for a workable, sensical abstraction other than the results of a given experiment or observation -- indicates that these results are faithful to something about information itself (or to some reality which the information is "about," if that distinction is not entirely trivial).

It may be that we "make sense of the world by the way we structure it," but clearly some ways of structuring the world do not allow us to make sense of it; they can be internally incoherent, but most often they "do not work" because they come into conflict with some emergent structure whose conditions of emergence necessarily precede the operation of conscious abstraction you describe.

In other words, the abstraction can fail to correspond adequately to the information on which the abstraction must of course rest, and "adequacy" is not always a matter of degree or even willed intention. A person could decide that our lack of a theory of quantum gravity calls empiricism into doubt, and thus that no harm will come of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and lining one's house with asbestos despite decades of research, but this does actually mean that such a person will not end up with cancer or even that the cancer will not be painful and perhaps fatal.

We end up, then with an awareness -- however mediated, however indirect -- of some sort of underlying material condition . Whether we call that a primary layer of information or something else, it remains that thing or realm of things to which all of our abstractions must, however loosely, correspond, and before which inconsistencies in abstraction would be defined as intellectual errors.

In this philosophical idiom, Jameson's argument would be translated* as follows: the abstraction called cyberspace eventually reveals itself to be inconsistent with the greater set of emergent properties that we call "information about the world,," and thus with the set of abstractions that make up the social, economic, and political world that corresponds to the underlying information system of our given period in history.

At the point at which the abstraction becomes useless for thought, it stands revealed as faulty in some way and needs must be replaced. What Jameson is looking for, however quixotically, is that abstraction which is useful in *all cases*, and thereby is the abstraction that corresponds to to the totality of a social-cultural-economic system which would in turn correspond to the set of axioms emergent from those basic elements of our condition as beings that are always shared.

This set of axioms is, by its very nature, necessary to achieving actual social transformations: when you "encourage" others to adopt a human rights perspective, you are in some sense orienting yourself towards this same set of axioms. His argument is that the "cyberspace" abstraction does not do this; it does not even really correspond to the underlying structure of computers and computer networks in any way that is especially faithful to their workings. One might say that its utility of abstracting networks-as-physical-space is very bounded as a way of making sense of the structure of those networks; Jameson would argue that it is even misleading in certain fundamental ways. (Consider the point in a programming or hacking task at which someone would abandon the spatial metaphorics.)

You can, of course declare that you do not care and that it it is quite possible to inhabit an internally consistent set of abstractions of your own, but this is the position of solipsism, at which point further discussion becomes impossible. The task of persuasion inherently seems to require us to tackle the problem of other minds; simply saying that your cares and concerns are not mine does not trivialize mine. It does not even elevate your own.

It occurs to me as well that the dimension of temporality wreaks havoc with some of your claims. Sequence, too, produces priority, and the experiential quality of duration affects personalized concepts of utility in profound ways. Like space, time proves to be an emergent quality of either the reality to which information corresponds or to the maximally utile abstraction which is the closest we can come to grasping the informational layer itself.

There is a broader problem in your final point about "being untroubled" by some of the questions raised about your positions, of course. You seem to be saying that you find your positions good enough for your own purposes. But how can you judge whether it is "good enough," or even whether the axioms you accept are the best axioms for realizing your preferences? (And this is without getting into the problem of imagining ethics as preference. The more I examine your positions, the harder I find it to define them in a way that is both consistent and non-solipsistic.)

* Consider the problem of translation: how do we tell if something is a "faithful" translation or not? Why can we say with certainty that some translations are entirely unfaithful? Or would you contend that we cannot? In which case, how is communication possible?
posted by kewb at 8:02 AM on July 5, 2015


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