There was a time where the meaning of Cyberpunk lied with those who produced it as fiction, whether it be authors like William Gibson (Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell), game developers like Mike Pondsmith (Cyberpunk 2020) and LookingGlass Technologies (System Shock, Deus), or even movie directors like the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell the anime) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man). Cyberpunk is built on a fear around the future of humanity, depicting alienation in worlds of corporate hegemony and technological advancements. These visions would become so influential that journalists would borrow language from it describe hackers stealing corporate data, swiping bank accounts from ATMs on the street, and even leaking of government data, though not with as much sympathy as Gibson has for Case. But its that latter instance, that of Cyberpunk morphing from a fictional response to neo-liberalism’s rampage to a description of contemporary realities and an identity, which makes things complicated.
As much as William Gibson is credited with popularizing Cyberpunk through work that depicting the nightmares of class stratification, he is no activist or radical. Yet Cyberpunk as an identity has been claimed by people from Chelsea Manning to tech corporations to even independent creatives hosting their work on Bandcamp, itch.io and Steam. People in the creative arts have taken to an online project of reclaiming Cyberpunk from what they see as a betrayal of the genre by developer CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077”, a game mired in controversy over transmisogyny, racism, ableism, and developer crunch. And in a rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape that mirrors some of the bleakest Cyberpunk depictions, the question of whether Cyberpunk is just a form of consumption or a progressive ethos of creation/destruction has been pushed to the forefront with the game’s release.
This reclamation project exists because Cyberpunk has gone from being a noun, to an adjective. People use Blade Runner, itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, as a model for what a future under late capitalism could look like (and arguably already does). After a successful manga series and anime feature film, “Ghost in the Shell” would take the format of a crime procedural in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex to illustrate, among other things, the rise of the internet to the point of influencing civil society. But as with Marx’s prediction of a proletarian uprising coming true in Russia and China instead of Germany and Britain, this Japanese vision of internet personalities and discourse having consequences for politics would end up happening in the U.S. instead. Though at least Silicon Valley isn’t producing giant police robots having deep discussions with each other about consciousness (for now).
The issue with trying to reclaim Cyberpunk as a revolutionary, leftist project is that while its fiction certainly interacts with the times, there are a number of differing, sometimes anti-revolutionary conclusions people can draw from its content. And that the conversation has gone in overdrive in response to Cyberpunk 2077s launch seems to give a foregone conclusion that this is just fandom discourse, similar to debates hardcore fans have around new Star Wars and Star Trek media. I argue that while there are problems with assessing politics through media alone, there’s a different, developing picture that must be noted: one in which alienated individuals find media which presents a fantasy of taking control in dystopic environments (or at least environments that seem dystopic to them). People have internalized these fantasies, eventually acting on this inspiration for different agendas in creative spaces, fan clubs, social media and even civil society. Just as the original Star Trek is said to have inspired people to become engineers with its a vision of space exploration in post-Cold War universe, so do the Wachowskis, Shirow and Gibson inspire people to fight with technology and against repression, in some cases transcending the political limitations of their work as media consumption. Edward Snowden likened his stint in Japan as an NSA contractor to some of his favorite Japanese media like “Ghost In The Shell”. And recorded conversations confirm the influence that Japanese media has had on the whistleblower,
Snowden, who was interviewed in Hong Kong last week, wrote in 2006 that he knew many people working in Japan. He later moved to Japan to work for Dell as a contractor for the NSA’s secretive surveillance program in early 2009. ABC News reported on Friday that Snowden attended the 2009 summer semester of the University of Maryland University College’s Asia program at a campus somewhere in Tokyo. UMUC’s website lists several campuses on U.S. military bases across Japan.
Between 2006 and 2008, Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA,” often chatted online with Peter Durfee, a Tokyo-based translator who studied at the American School in Japan in the 1980s and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Durfee, who has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, claims to do contract work for Japan’s prime minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diet members and many corporations. He’s currently director of the Nippon Communications Foundation and a translation instructor at the Simul Academy, whose graduates work in key positions across Japan’s economy and bureaucracy.
Using the name “Durf,” he posted 9,528 times on Ars Technica between 2002 and last week.
“We did indeed both post on some threads at Ars Technica,” said Durfee, known for his sarcastic wit on Twitter and other sites. “Unfortunately this doesn’t mean he’s now holed up in my Tokyo guest room.”
While one would be quick to dismiss this as just an incidental moment of intense weeabooism, the thing about media is that even the most frivolous pablum doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even with the libertarian leanings, skills and privilege which got him into the NSA with a GED, Snowden wore the media he was into on his sleeve. But in addition to his fascination with Japanese media, when interviewed by the NSA, one of the books he cited as inspiration was Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. This novel is in many ways the opposite of Cyberpunk when it comes to corporate politics, but its still notable: “Atlas Shrugged” centers Dangy Taggart, a women running a railroad in a time of economic downturn admist a series of mysterious disappearances. The mystery is far from organic, with characters constantly saying, “Who is John Galt?” so as to somehow force its flacid mystery into becoming a real one. And the answer turns out that John Galt is a rebel stealing the world’s inventors and business titans, inviting them into a hidden enclave away from what he and others deemed a world of “looters” and parasites. This enclave contains, among other things, a secret plan for a disruptive train engine technology which is powered by static electricity pulled from the atmosphere. Rand’s novel bridges the gap between pulp and polemic, describing a battle of extraordinary men and women against what Rand saw as lazy, collectivist parasites, through turgid writing espousing a ultra-capitalist viewpoint to the right of Adam Smith.
Snowden is no angel. He went to the NSA after a failed stint in the army, having broken both of his legs. And he stayed in the NSA for years under both George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama, initially approving of the surveillance measures as a necessity for The War on Terror. He was, and still is, an American exceptionalist, and his activism today rests on an assumption of the NSA’s overreaching being a betrayal of the nation, as opposed to an outgrowth from what Achille Mbembe in “Necropolitics” describes as America’s flight from democracy due to its systemic racism and inequality. Yet from within these places of influence and access grew his disillusionment and eventual activism, propped up in no small part by the efforts of journalists Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras to inform the public of the NSA’s massive surviellance apparatus. This coverage was so massive and ignitied such a massive conversation on surveilance and civil liberties that author Charles Stross had to cancel the release of a third book in a trilogy. It turned out that the real world was too close to his artistic vision for comfort,
At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).
I’m throwing in the towel. I probably will write another near-future Scottish police procedural by and by, but it won’t be a sequel to the first two except in the loosest sense. The science fictional universe of “Halting State” and “Rule 34” is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for “Rule 34”; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.
I argue that it is not a stretch to describe Snowden’s actions, and the fallout since, as Cyberpunk in action, even as he initially started out politically immature and naive, if not an willing soldier for American Empire. As it is with actual punk, having style doesn’t mean you’ll have good politics. But Cyberpunk is about how you use the tech around you. Cyberpunk from its initial synthesais has a fashionable yet unmistakable relationship to globalization and technological development. The world has gone to mostly prove its darkest predictions right even though we aren’t living in literal recreations of Gibson or Otomo’s nightmares.
Whether we like it or not, technology is central in our lives, from the algorithmic movements of the stock market as documented in Michael Lewis’s books “The Big Short” and “Flash Boys”, to social media, smartphones and “smart” home devices linked by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Our media is increasingly served to us by tech giants or companies who have taken a hold of tech to give us content, like Netflix, Amazon and Disney+, and the newer devices we “own” are subject to ever tighter End User License Agreements which limit repairability and privacy. This proliferation of tech definitely has drawbacks under Capitalism, chief among them an erosion of personal ownership along with debilitating environmental effects caused by e-waste. Case at least owned his gear, while people today are lucky to get their hands on tech that doesn’t remove features from previous models or slows down dramatically the year new hardware and software are released. But the proliferation of tech has not displaced the need for rebellion. In this proprietary battleground, people still rebel. Uprisings like Black Lives Matter in Ferguson, #EndSARS in Nigeria, Feminist movements in Latin America and even the individual actions of Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange illustrate how intertwined tech has become with politics. While the mainstreaming of the very technology Cyberpunks could only have dreamed of has come at the cost of personal autonomy, people still attempt to foster a creative spirit on the edges. In response to Twitter and Facebook comes Mastodon. In response to Apple lobbying against Right To Repair laws around the world, the Electronic Frontier Foundation becomes a news source and an activist program. And outside the U.S. are groups of Latin American Linux users, Saharan nomads with cellphones, Filipino Maoists resisting Duerte’s censorship, and Japanese Virtual Idols raking up millions of subscribers.
The world has outpaced Cyberpunk fiction in a lot of ways. In the face of this, a reactive direction towards purity even in response to bad Cyberpunk art would blunt the very method of examination between technological advancement and the making of humanity that makes up Cyberpunk. An art form being dated or problematic doesn’t have to be a moral or even a political strike for ever finding inspiration from it. But arguing that today’s Cyberpunk is impure and reactionary compared to the classics one read as a teenager doesn’t make a case for better art. It merely filters away the ugly in favor of comfort, and conflates that comfort with a radicalism that is both past and impossible. This is especially self-serving when the very tech-induced realities once portrayed in fiction have become real, which is another factor for why even new Cyberpunk media can seem dated. And these advancements have a racialized and economic basis, with the erosion of unionization since the 1960s, intensification of border control and forever wars waged for territory and resources. “Cyberpunk 2077” may be The Sex Pistols, but for Cyberpunk to have meaning, what it should be responding to is AFRICOM and The Monroe Doctrine.
Having said that, the way this fiction overlaps with our real world can test typical dynamics one observes with fandom and how it relates to politics. One particular reason why crafting metaphors for current political situations from Harry Potter and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is limited is because of how these respective media properties are first and foremost about their heroes journey, with the sociopolitical aspects often being in the background. Its not that its possible to utilize these things in a political manner, as Captain America, Black Panther and even J.K. Rowling’s subsequent creative works/statements have shown. But these can expose limitations in trying to encapsulate politics within hero narratives, with the risk of collapsing complex political issues into simple, sometimes fascist, narratives. No less than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons worked to push this heroism, influenced as many things are by geopolitics and race, to its logical, genocidal conclusion in “Watchmen”. But as with many deconstructive works, many would go on to miss the point, especially in this case during the comics speculation boom of the 1990s. And “Watchmen” since has been adapted, merchandised, crossed over into the DC comics universe (really) and monetized many times over.
Cyberpunk on the other hand stems from a cynical view burrowed from Noir, crime drama and spy thrillers onto technological development, sociopolitical conflict and post-modernism. There is rarely a choosen one, and when there is, its not a heroic or inspiring story. Whatever heroes there are in Cyberpunk have to deal with the world as it is, as flawed and sometimes weak individuals eeking out a living in hellscapes. This isn’t to say that Cyberpunk is good because its “realistic”. Setting aside that the internet in “Neuromancer” is different from how it is in real life, Cyberpunk also has own problems with a predominant Western cultural viewpoint on social inequality and crime. This and the speed of technological development since the genre became codified finds authors trying to predict and catch up with the future at the same while trying to tell a compelling story. Altered Carbon the Netflix series may be a tale of alienation, but its not particularly great when it comes to race, gender, or sex work, using these elements as mere ornaments for shock value in service of telling a cybernetic Noir detective story. And as alternatively humanistic and critical as the Wachowskis can be, not even they could have imagined anything like QAnon, a stew of blood libel, distrust of Science and reactionary messiah-mongering, attracting fervor while being harnessed for political power and violence. But there are gradients within Cyberpunk’s portrait of stratified and tech-enhanced paranoia which resonate with Black, People of Color, Disabled and LGBT individuals. Their creative and critical efforts have formed into a narrative that the 2020 CD Projekt Red video game is inadequate as a Cyberpunk vision, if not an outright betrayal. To them, it and even original game creator Pondsmith’s statement of Cyberpunk being “About saving yourself” runs counter to their intracommunal experiences of Cyberpunk as a fandom where they affirmed themselves under Leftist politics through creativity, tech and political activism.
If one is to do a reclamation of Cyberpunk, or even begin to transcend its limits as fiction, the present and the past will have to be scrutinized at the same time. Here I seek to highlight the developments of Cyberpunk media, in contrast with real-world critiques of both its view of the oppressed and its internal philosophical/political content. Organizing and thinking critically as a Cyberpunk in the new era by no means disappears bad Cyberpunk fiction or guarantees that being marginalized means one will be a better Cyberpunk. I believe that we can appreciate Cyberpunk for what it is while looking at how things are today beyond passivity and resignation. But I’m not providing a list of petitions to sign, campaigns to donate to or a template for a organizational structure. There are two reasons why: the world as we know it is rapidly changing, and I am only one person with a certain life experience. I am a Black trans woman who has been organizing for years, and has seen firsthand the triumphs and failings that can come with harnessing a leftist praxis, especially during times of environmental devastation and pandemics. But none of my experience can come close to matching what the reader is going through in their own time. I can’t tell you to join an org I’m a part of because it may have undergone a change or have split by then. And with my previous attempt at laying out organization writ Abortion Rights as an LGBT person, I realized that as much as I try to survey the world and be read up on theory, authority can be slippery because material conditions can be slippery. I tried to provide a concrete answer to the question and while I provided an overall (that you should listen to Marxist Black women, for one), I couldn’t lay down what an ideal organization should be, and I won’t here. Many organizations have fallen. If you want to chaulk the relative sheltered nature of Cyberpunks to a lack of Democratic Centralism, I would caution against doing that unless one has done an extensive investigation of the narratives within and outside of Cyberpunk itself. And that is what I’m trying to do here.
Part of why the conversation around “Cyberpunk 2077” has been so intense is precisely because many have come to make Cyberpunk in their own image. Cyberpunk was an idea, then a product and finally a language, and it has swing through these stages in multiple points in its history apart from Science Fiction since. As Pondsmith did with his landmark game “Cyberpunk 2020”, I lay out a narrative and even express some biases while connecting a few major trends, philosophies and follies. If there is one thing I want the reader the do, is to try to expand one’s conception of politics, even on a representational level, beyond consuming fiction. As far as I can see, there is no better fiction demonstrating the need to look at the outside world, even in the middle of a pandemic, than Cyberpunk itself. Maybe the reason why our current media is no longer satisfactory, why even ambitious games like “Cyberpunk 2077” seem shallow upon reflection, is because ultimately it can only do so much to encapsulate our desires. Our media is still important, but it is not the only thing. Even if the simulacrum and American exceptionalism are as all-encompassing and resistant to dialectical struggle as Baudrillard says it is, I think its worthwhile to see how Cyberpunk media lines up, where it falters, and decide what to do about it anyway. Before we suffocate under devastation and despair, we can still choose to make some sparks by critically examining what inspires us and how we act.
One of the chief concerns of the Cyperpunk reclamation project is its origins as a literary movement. With this a common sentiment has been that one should adopt a more, “pure” approach to Cyperpunk 2077’s gamification by uprooting and embracing its literary past. This supposes that the moment one consumes another Cyberpunk work besides the video game, that they will see how its, “really done” and see through the ruse of CD Projekt Red like “true Cyberpunks” do. Hence the calls of elevating the opinions of Gibson adn Pondsmith as true arbiters of the genre, if not the very boundaries of the creative ethos, of Cyberpunk. But William Gibson didn’t invent it. Mike Pondsmith didn’t invent it (and he says as much). Not even Philip K. Dick should be enshrined, as much as many Cyperpunk works having been taking from his individual stories and concepts since “Blade Runner”. There are multiple developments within and outside of Science Fiction before it formed into what we know of it today. Because of this, simply looking at curated lists and essays denoting what is true, “Cyberpunk” seals one in a vacuum which renders them unable to properly access its content. No one person can claim Cyberpunk, because how it was defined back then versus how it is now is a ongoing process of synthesis, sometimes with good art but underdeveloped politics, other times with explicit politics but terrible art.
To pick just one example of a genre progenitor, the 1956 novel “The Stars My Destination” (published as “Tiger! Tiger!” in the UK) by Alfred Bester centers Gully Foyle, a man seeking revenge at all costs in a futuristic world domineered by space-faring corporations, governments and social regulations around the ability to teleport at will. In its second half, it opens with Gully’s explosive double life as a stunt man and a retreat to personal quarters, where he looks in the mirror and examines the extensive cybernetic enhancements he gets since his exploits. From here, he begins a journey of transcending his physical form that Arthur C. Clarke would later emulate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit with less bloodletting and questionable sexual ethics. While violent, its still rooted in the characteristics and even outlook of Golden Age Sci-Fi, laying out a detailed vision of space exploration full of operatic wonder even as its character developments borrow a dark view of law enforcement and criminality from Noir crime dramas. Its just advanced enough as a story to be distinguishable from dozens of more pulpy Sci-Fi of the 40s and 50s, but retains in part their penchant for snappy descriptions and larger-than-life characters. The comic adaptation of this story, published in 1972 has art bringing this story to detail, putting its interesting and sometimes disconcerting mix of fiction sensibilities to sharper relief. Howard Chaykin’s illustrations and Bryon Preiss’s writing flesh out an amoral protagonist out for revenge surrounded by a shiny futuristic world straight out of a “Flash Gordon” serial.
But would you say that this is the real origin of Cyberpunk, not Gibson? Not entirely. For one, even as the protagonist goes above and beyond in his self-interest, the world around him still retains its shine, and the story has a pulpy yet relatively stable energy compared to Cyberpunk’s later postmodernist stylings. As Brent Wood notes on Cyberpunk’s literary style, while quoting Scott Bukatman’s connection of Deleuze, Guattari and Burrough’s writing,
In his article “Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System” (1991) and later in his book Terminal Identity (1993), Bukatman describes cyberpunks as “taking their cues from Burroughs and Pynchon as well as from Bataille and Breton and Dali and Man Ray.” In Bukatman’s opinion, one of the principal tactics of cyberpunk writers is to, like Derrida and Burroughs, temporarily inhabit the “rational structures of technological discourse” in order to transform them into a “highly poeticized, dreamlike liberation” (SFS 351)…
Bukatman is interested in Deleuze and Guattari primarily for their idea of the “Body without Organs” (BwO), which he uses as a way to understand the non-unitary cyborg body…To illustrate the tricky (anti-)concept of the BwO, Bukatman resorts to the same passage from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (10) as do Deleuze and Guattari:
In his place of total darkness mouth and eyes are one organ that leaps forward to snap with transparent teeth . . . but no organ is constant as regards either function or position . . . sex organs sprout anywhere . . . rectums open, defecate and close . . . the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments. (SFS 353; Deleuze and Guattari [from “no organ” on] 153).
The Body without Organs, in this illustration, is a sort of ad hoc body, one whose configuration can change according to present need. Bukatman uses it as a way to explain what happens when the human is sublimated entirely into technology or text.
“The Stars My Destiniation” is definitely a lot of things, but it doesn’t have the chilly, distant character which would distinguish Cyberpunk as Science Fiction, or the sensual blurring of literary formality that one can observe in Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” or Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”. But “The Stars My Destination” was published in a time where classifications of Sci-Fi were little less segmented than they are today, with authors sometimes mixing wildly different subjects and postulations in service of a story that grabs the reader’s attention. The big paradigm shift in the story comes not only from technological advancement, but from a genetic ability called “jaunting”, where a person can teleport to any place in their memory at will. Put this power in the hands of a man like Gully Foyle, however, and you don’t Superman. You get a monster who utilizes this power for personal gain. Cyberpunk literature in general isn’t defined by an optimistic look on new discoveries of human potential or technology. However detailed the development, these stories approach technology with a mix of pragmatism and caution. Otomo’s manga series “Akira” features a multi-page explanation for the bio-engineering project which produces NeoTokyo’s psychic children, with quasi-spiritual undertones while set in a dark future echoing a Japan devastated by U.S. nuclear war crimes.
The boundaries of what makes a work Cyberpunk can be more broad than we believe, even if its meaning has been constrained by publishers trying to move product since the 1980s. The interesting thing is that as Cyberpunk’s author sought to distinguish themselves through post-modern styles, the free market leapt quickly to contain these developments into consumer products, containing what once appeared to be a wave of new American literature. Not that you can’t sniff out the influences of this development outside of science fiction and philosophy, like in the fiction of Don DeLilo, Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. But marketers and authors don’t own meaning.
There’s a problem with the way people single out Cyberpunk as a problematic and limited piece of media, where its critics seek to point out its flaws while taking the premises of the very consumer apparatus they claim to be rebuting. Cyberpunk is often characterized by critics with an obsession with surface, with images of dystopic environments and lone figures (sometimes rag-tag teams) eeking out a living through heists using a combination of smarts, cybernetic enhancements and lingo that’s like a cross between junkie and dealer. And while many works in this subgenre emphasize, “Style over substance” as the tagline for Pondsmith’s classic game goes, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss its contents solely on the majority of its works having shallow content beneath their chrome exteriors. It would be foolish to dismiss Toni Morrison novels like Beloved and Song of Solomon just because dozens of less “important” books by other Black authors exist, and that’s not even getting into who or what determines an artistic work to be exemplary of a specific demographic or genre. There’s mediocrity everywhere, and it will probably still exist even after revolution. The issue is one’s relationship to it.
On the flipside, trying to definte Cyberpunk’s importance by retroactively placing older works as a gold standard can be myopic. Scrutinizing the contents of our media is the right move to make in a world flowing between globalization, stagnation and reaction. Having a global audience doesn’t necessarily mean reflecting global politics. One only needs to read between the lines of the Disney/Marvel movie “Black Panther” and how it depicts different strains of Black radical politics to understand this. There is something there in the silicon and chrome surface of Cyberpunk, contrary to what its detractors say. But however much that substance is intertwined with class warfare, nationalism and xenophobia, trying to justify our media as being secret guidebooks for leftist struggle unlike “Cyberpunk 2077” can be disingenuous to the point of making one’s approach to these subjects shallow and self-serving. To illustrate what I mean, I want focus on the creative efforts of Mike Pondsmith. The developments of the 2020 video game, along with the sanctity/limits of Cyberpunk as a genre, have been centered around him since his highlight as a consultant by CD Projekt Red before the game’s launch. Pondsmith himself isn’t shy about the influences that build his game or about what he thinks the genre is really about,
“I think the aesthetic of Blade Runner made the genre,” Pondsmith says. “A large part of the cyberpunk genre is atmospherics. It’s the feel. Blade Runner is important not just because of the technology but because it had the elements of film noir that cyberpunk is always calling back to.” (…)
In the mid-1980s, Pondsmith says that an engineer friend redesigned a $300 scanner to do the work of a $42,000 machine they had to rent from an office downtown. It changed the way he did business. “Technology had begun to move out of a scientist or technician class and was getting down to the level where a guy like that could say, ‘I don’t like this scanner, I think I’ll redesign it.’ It had moved to the street,” he says. “And I think those two things come together, you have uncertainty but you have marvels. Your immediate thought is, ‘Whenever we’ve had something marvelous, usually the people in power get it first. They don’t let us have it. They stand against us.’”
More contentious is what Pondsmith has to say about the moral and political contents of the genre. Contemporary Cyberpunks may describe it as an ethos of liberation, but to Pondsmith its more of a survival story wrapped in a warning about corporate rule. And its not a happy story,
Pondsmith also says that the reason cyberpunk is doing well right now is because its stories feel immediate. For him, they aren’t especially cerebral. The good stuff, he says, is about immediate concerns. “We’re on the street, we have stuff to deal with,” he says. “The big questions are there, but right now I need to make sure that the street gang doesn’t bash my head in. You either get to be the hero or the victim. Everybody likes to be a hero, nobody wants to be a victim.”
(…) “You’re not fighting for truth or freedom, you’re fighting to have a place to live,” he says. “How many people, right now, are looking at being out on the street in one month? Two months? You’re going to relate to that. You’re going to relate to the idea that some power is out there that can just take away where you live, take away your livelihood. If that’s where things are, maybe I shouldn’t be a sheep.” (…)
That sense of immediate and material concerns is something Pondsmith tried to drive home in his conversations with CD Projekt about the game. “It can not be about saving the world. You’re saving yourself or your community,” he says. “The stakes have to be something that involves the player. You can’t just say, ‘The world is craptastic and you can’t do anything about it.’ No. You don’t have to save the world, but you need to be able to save your mother or the apartment you and your friends live in. You need to make sure your neighborhood isn’t rolled over by the boostergangs.”
Depending on who you ask, this either connotes a selfish, anti-social politics, or is proof that Cyberpunk has always been about an anti-corporate politics, which therefore makes it revolutionary. Thing is, Pondsmith is speaking as both a creative and a game master. He’s a creative in that he’s responding to then-contemporary fears through his work while citing his artistics inspirations, but he’s a game master in that he’s not crafting preachy propaganda but instead a player space for people to make choices within. Should his work be more polemical, it would certainly remove some ambiguity and maybe leftists would have a stronger argument. But like Gibson, his work is a gumbo of different elements. This vision may have an overarching bent towards disliking corporate power, but it is ultimately up to the Cyberpunk to define how they move through his world with that hatred. The video game adaptation seems like a “betrayal” to people who draw more positive politics from earlier Cyberpunk works, but the developers are simply going in the general directions Pondsmith laid out for them. For its faults and shortcomings, CD Projekt Red’s video game isn’t betraying Cyberpunk, its just reinterpreting it, if not completely toeing the line of what Cyberpunk has often been.
The coexistence of elements from different genres, styles and even cultures in Cyberpunk can make it difficult to assert a, “pure” politics, let alone when its from later mass media franchises like “The Matrix”, from which can exist multiple interpretations of both its style and its substance. The Wachowski’s usage of the Red Pill denotes a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to, “unlock the truth” within the narrative. Some have gone further and connected it with a narrative around gender dysphoria in the wake of the Wachowski’s coming out to a hostile news media, confirmed by Lily Wachowski herself with stories of the initial film’s development,
Wachowski discusses how, within science fiction, where transformation and the impossible is possible, a space is created for people, especially trans people, to see themselves, and The Matrix has become even more so a part of that. Wachowski also discusses how, at the time, “the world wasn’t quite ready, at a corporate level” for the film to be the trans allegory that it was originally intended to be.
She mentions the character of Switch was originally going to be a man in the “real world” and a woman in the Matrix, but that didn’t end up happening. Wachowski also says that while she doesn’t know how much of her transness was present in the writing of the story it, “all came from the same fire.”
“It’s why I gravitated towards science fiction and fantasy,” she says. Games like Dungeons and Dragons allowed for the creation of worlds and imagination and dialogue for feelings that didn’t have words yet.
“When you make movies, it’s this public art form,” she says about the discussion of the trans allegory in the film. “I think any kind of art that you put out in the universe, there’s a letting-go process because it’s entering into public dialogue. I like that there’s an evolution process that we, as human beings, engage in art in a non-linear way—that we can always talk about something in new ways and in new light.”
Despite this, Morpheus’ classic line has been repurposed and given variance by reactionaries as a rhetorical right-wing recruiting tool. And these reactionaries have ranged from Men’s Rights Activists, “The Way of Men” author Jack Donovan, posters in Incel forums like 4Chan’s /r9k/ and supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency. Lily Wackowski cussed out Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump for using the term on Twitter last year. As much as the Wachowskis intend for their Cyberpunk vision to be a liberatory and spiritual story, “The Matrix” is first and foremost a consumer product. As a product it can’t be entirely free from systems of control and individualistic fulfillment which only occasionally propels marginalized creatives to fame.
This isn’t to say that taking inspiration from Cyberpunk is invalid because its fiction and is not, “pure” politics. Politics is embedded in everyday life, from the banal avenues through which we access media to the content of the work themselves. One can debate the substance of Cyberpunk as art, but just because its not in the same form as a presidential debate or an academic paper doesn’t mean that its contents are completely frivolous. There’s a tendency in discourse to reduce politics to formalism, calcifying the forces of the economy and laws it into bi-yearly rituals of candidacies and voting. But this analysis ignores all the ways in which even the lives we take for granted are shaped by vast, overriding structure. These structures shape spaces of intimacy and recognition, to the point where even choices made with “common sense” are acts of surrender to what imprisons us. That right-wingers use the imagery of Cyberpunk in lazy, reactionary ways doesn’t mean that the subgenre has been tainted and should be abandoned. But there’s a danger in trying to wrest a craft a purity narrative in contrast to CDPR’s “betrayal” in response. The best of the genre is as shaped by predictions and fears of techno-Asian hegemony as Golden Age Sci-Fi would be shaped by the Manhattan Project.
As a language, Cyberpunk can be fluid, but it carries with it is shaped by material conditions, so much so that even our positive responses to the idea of cybernetic enhancements as a metaphor for trans personhood rests on subjectivity. Sometimes this subjectivity is a positive one that can lead to insights into other connected causes, like those of disabled and colonized peoples. Other times its to pathologize the presence of these traits as synonymous with the decay of “Western Civilization”. Even with Pondsmith’s efforts as a Black creator, the genre has struggled with bad to sloppy racial politics for decades. And its gender politics can be equally troublesome. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw argues for Cyberpunk fiction to be better, criticizing even Pondsmith’s game for how it approaches gender divergence, while highlighting examples of affirming narratives,
“Ghost in the Shell is a great example of an accidental trans narrative,” cyberpunk RPG writer and zine editor Kira Magrann told the Daily Dot. Best known from the 1995 anime movie, Ghost in the Shell stars Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg with a human brain inside a cybernetic body. Depicted as a beautiful, doll-like woman, the film’s iconic title sequence shows her “shell” being assembled from its component parts. The franchise explicitly illustrates the separation between mind and body, the latter of which was designed and built by outside forces.
“She questions her identity as related to her body, and if memories or thoughts do in fact make up a person,” says Magrann. “Ghost in the Shell was my nonbinary fantasy as a teenager… I can’t help but imagine how many other trans kids could be positively affected by more trans narratives in cyberpunk.”
“She questions her identity as related to her body, and if memories or thoughts do in fact make up a person,” says Magrann. “Ghost in the Shell was my nonbinary fantasy as a teenager… I can’t help but imagine how many other trans kids could be positively affected by more trans narratives in cyberpunk.”Speaking to trans cyberpunk fans, you hear a lot about the contrast between mainstream cyberpunk and the stories being told by indie artists and game designers. While Hollywood clumsily explores oppression through the eyes of cis white cops, a handful of more interesting creators are breaking through elsewhere. For better-known examples, Faraon highlights the cyberpunk-influenced Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” and Janelle Monae’s visual album Dirty Computer. Then at the genuinely punk end of the scale, she namechecks indie game designers like Porpentine and Aether Interactive.
But as wide as this list of counterexamples is, it stops at the cusp of consumption. It is great to highlight the work of independent artists, but if its done in the absence of an active connection to a wider political understanding, the only thing you’d be organizing is a convention. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, its just limited. Characters don’t have to babble about Capitalism for a Cyberpunk work for it be sufficiently political (“Cyberpunk 2077″ itself tries to do this through Deus Ex-style logs to the point of didactism), but it should attempt to grapple with the living realities of what it means to be a criminal. In laying out an alternative Cyberpunk perspective through his essay Hood Cyberpunk”, Yussef Cole lays out a contemporary understanding of systemic racism and how it criminalizes entire peoples, in contrast to what he sees as criminality tourism in white-led Cyperpunk,
“In her book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander describes the “One Strike and You’re Out” policy which stipulates that “under federal law, public housing tenants can be evicted regardless of whether they had knowledge of or participated in alleged criminal activity” carried out by their houseguests. What this amounts to is collective punishment: a mother losing her home because her son is busted for pot; an elderly resident evicted because their caregiver might come back positive from a drug test. Policing has always been unevenly applied, particular when it comes to drug offenses and some of the harshest policies are carried out in the projects, often without much public attention or outcry. What serves as fodder for the grimy cyberpunk backdrops applied by writers like Gibson are the mundane and daily indignities faced by poor families of color, stuck in the prison-like public housing system.
These same sites, which certainly see the harshest forms of policing and least amount of public resources, often tend to be the sites where the most dramatic forms of resistance take place. In “The Corner,” Gary Simon describes the common practice among Baltimore’s poorest residents of relying on “electricity pirated by extension cord from a back-alley utility pole.” Elsewhere, heroin addicts strip houses of copper plumbing, whether they’re lived-in or not, and sell whatever they can haul to local construction crews.
This version of off-the-grid living isn’t as sexy or cool as the criminal contract work of keyboard cowboys, genetically engineered diplomats or mind-enhanced data couriers. Mostly, it’s vilified and mocked. But it’s a real example of resistance to a social structure that ignores you at best and locks you away at worse. In West Baltimore, “a working, viable caper is to be celebrated.” It’s a small and petty way to fight back, but it’s reflective of a real desire to break out from under a repressive system. Meanwhile, cyberpunk stories sample freely from imagery of criminality devoid of context or motivation. Gangs and triads run the streets because gangs and triads are iconographies that handily represent individualist priorities and libertarian beliefs – an inherent distrust of government met not with rebellion or other kinds of political resistance, but with self-aggrandizement and shortsighted nihilism.
With these observations, Cole lays out an materialist alternative: rather than confine Cyberpunk to what’s laid out by white thrill-seekers, you can examine the living conditions of the very people this technocracy targets. Whereas Case merely resides in dystopia after having found a way to make a living, Yussef seeks to transform it so that no one has to struggle. As the Elves and Orcs of Shadowrun are awkward, often problematic representations of the subaltern, you an examine the subaltern as they live right now, as they utilizing tech that seems crude in comparison to the fantasy of the Decker with their Sony-brand gear, yet addresses the need of a community and in some ways directly confronts oppression and criminalization. The point here is that its not just the tech that makes you “punk” in the rebellious way that people come to mean, even if said rebelliousness is sometimes a product of marketing appearances more than material reality.
What to the white viewpoint is a dystopic future is in more ways than one a reality for colonized, disabled and LGBT people, from the redlining of Black and Brown communities along with the restriction of civil rights to warfare upon sovereign nations with justifications derived from shallow proclamations of fighting for those same rights. But people have found ways to rebel and build community. If Pondsmith defines Cyberpunk by how one uses technology in the present, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning aren’t the only living Cyberpunks. And the media, as valiantly as it tries, can only ever catch up to living reality. To contrast a Cyberpunk media and real life-activism: Blacks Lives Matter and #EndSARS happen because of coordinated and tech-savvy Black people documenting police terror detail, not unlike the characters in the Kathryn Bigelow-directed cult hit “Strange Days”. This movie centers a man named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) who deals detailed black market recordings of everyday lives, ranging from the thrilling to the sexual, conveyed in the film as first-person recordings that induce the real feeling of being there, including smell, taste and physical sensations. But after meeting longtime friend Mace (Angela Bassett) on a night of business, he becomes entangled in a conspiracy against a witness of a brutal murder of a popular Black rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). Meanwhile, a voyeuristic killer is on the loose in the streets of LA, using the very recording technology Fiennes’s character uses to document his murders.
As Sci-Fi actioneers go, it is definitely one of the gems of the 90s, with kinetic action, atmospheric grit and well-shot POV sequences that startle even today. These sequences depict incidents of racist violence, sexual assault alon gside moments of affection, the latter a part of Lenny’s character arc where he yearns for the return with his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis).But in the end, this movie treats racism as a matter of reform and reconciliation. While the serial killer subplot and his feelings for Faith are both resolved by Lenny, Mace resolves the murder of Jeriko One by simply presenting evidence to the police chief, who then apprehends the suspects before they are ceremoniously executed for trying to kill Mace. After this, Mace and Lenny fall in love, with the latter having gotten past his old feelings for Faith. Years after the supposed dawn of the new year in “Strange Days”, Black people have faced far more racist violence and have gone much further in their response. With consumer technology, cooperation and the confines of social media, Black communities have turned the very surveillance technologies utilized against them for decades against police officers and heads of state. And as the public debates over these visceral documents, Black scholars and organizers utilize decades of scholarship and political education to connect these incidents to systemic racism and bloody legacies of colonialism.
“Strange Days” was made to reflect on the Rodney King riots, celebrity culture and the racism of the LAPD, transporting these subjects to a near-future with a reformist message urging for a new age. #EndSars and Black Lives Matter document police violence and structural racism in detailed audio and imagery, way past the cut-off point of the movie and its chaotic Los Angeles streets. Black people wrestle with censorship and algorithmic manipulations by corporations and advertisers to raise awareness on social media, and sometimes they even brush up with differing political and organizational perspectives. Recently, 10 Black Lives Matter organizations signed an open letter for accountability following a covert Executive Director appointment for the national branch which represents them,
We became chapters of Black Lives Matter as radical Black organizers embracing a collective vision for Black people engaging in the protracted struggle for our lives against police terrorism. With a willingness to do hard work that would put us at risk, we expected that the central organizational entity, most recently referred to as the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN) Foundation, would support us chapters in our efforts to build communally. Since the establishment of BLMGN, our chapters have consistently raised concerns about financial transparency, decision making, and accountability. Despite years of effort, no acceptable internal process of accountability has ever been produced by BLMGN and these recent events have undermined the efforts of chapters seeking to democratize its processes and resources.
With open calls for accountability from major organizations in the background, people on the ground and at home use tech to reexamine, revise and revitalize various methods of resistance borrowed from slave revolts and the Civil Rights movement. Through PDFs, ebooks and .doc files, people share knowledge. Using chat applications of varying (sometimes compromised) levels of security, people try to dole out tactics. And through intersecting lines of marginalization, organizers have begun to reckon with the limits of hypervisibility as a barometer of progress, where not even Obama’s presidency or media representation have been able to stop the tides of white reaction. To Black thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw, both of these things have only coddled it instead of challenging it,
While the celebratory social amnesia of the “Obama phenomenon” pulled countless people into its orbit, the rhetoric of denial at its core worked to strip critiques of racial power of both legitimacy and audience. In its wake, the material consequences of racial exploitation and violence—including the persistence of educational inequity, the disproportionate racial patterns of criminalization and incarceration, and the deepening patterns of economic stratification—slid further into obscurity. Under the thrall of post-racialism, these stubborn conditions posed no serious challenge to the belief that the election of one leader could somehow signify the end of a trans-generational, intersectional, and structural system of racial dominance.
There is, of course no inherent reason why post-racialism would have to signal the insignificance of race. But by the same token, post-racialism didn’t need to be “post” at all. By the logic of its own sleight-of-temporal hand, post-racialism became tied to a rhetoric that stigmatizes all race-consciousness. From policy intervention to civil rights advocacy to basic acknowledgment of racial disparities, post-racialism potentially discredited all talk of racism as racial grievance. Thus, to be post-racial was to cease any engagement with, or acknowledgment of, racial injustice.
But with respect to Cole, I wouldn’t say that Cyberpunk fiction is just power fantasies and cool outfits, or even insufficient whitewashed visions of rebellion. From Japan in particular, there’s Cyberpunk with a more contemplative, horrifying picture of the merging of humanity and machine. But where American and European works go off into the future, Japanese Cyberpunk sprung somewhat organically out of Japanese cultural trends, as American and British aesthetics are fused with Japanese sensibilities and rhythms in the midst of domestic booms and busts. By comparison, the “punk” in Western Cyberpunk seems like part of an oxymoron. But it also pushes the ethos of aesthetic political engagement to its limit, in going as far as any consumer product could possibly ever go in confronting contemporary fears and desires. The third act of the original “Ghost in the Shell” movie, where Makato tries to rip the top off of a hulking spider tank, only to tear apart her own arms, could serve as a metaphor for how Japanese Cyberpunks try to grapple with the social changes in their home country. The horror and chaos within Japanese Cyberpunk is that of artists surveying the consequences of the economic boom of the 80s, charting out its consequences almost in real-time while giving pointed questions about what could be gained and lost from it.
The visceral investigations and depictions within Japanese Cyberpunk often stop just shy of asking the historical national question, but when it does, the conclusion it draws is that will either be broken down or obliterated. Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo the Iron Man” personifies its politics through body horror, where the a world of salarymen, brisk walks down Tokyo streets, and even heterosexual consummation are ripped apart and consumed by machinery as if it were a cancer. But even its extensive special effects, it wears an artistic origin from Japanese independent cinema on its sleeve. Tsukamoto worked with other independent moviemakers like Gakuryû Ishii, Shigeru Izumiya and Shozin Fukui in merging counter-culture punk sensibilities against the backdrop of Japan’s post-war economic boom. Some of these blur the lines between documentary and fiction through cinema verite, and fall more into punk cinema, while others began to go into more fantastical, grotesque and sexually charged visions not unlike that of a Cronenberg movie. YouTuber Robert Edwards created a well-sourced film essay linking their work with a development of Japanese Cyberpunk as a genre, one which in my opinion lays out a good chronology though not an exact demarcation point of what makes a work Cyberpunk. Edwards doesn’t claim to be an authority, but he has at least done his homework.
Riding this Japanese wave, “Tetsuo” provides an intense, horrific Cyberpunk vision through an abundance of close-ups, smash cuts and monster movie-level special effects. It depicts one salaryman’s descent into an unmaking through industrial transformation and sprawl, after he is attacked by a woman infected with machinery . It goes from horror to carnage to finally a sexually-charged climax where he is absorbed by another man with a different manifestations of this infection. A woman is gored by the protagonist’s drilling metal phallus. His antagonist, fighting him on the streets, has flashbacks to an abusive childhood triggered by the sound of clanging metal. Over the course of their brawl in a factory, they twist and warp into each other, creating a space of homoerotic reconciliation within. Their fusion cries, “Our love shall conquer this world!” before it sails through Tokyo in lightning speed.
Other Japanese Cyberpunk works render the national character on a wider scale. What distinguishes Otomo’s “Akira” from not just other Cyberpunk works but even contemporary Science Fiction is how it maps boundaries of technological development and human potential to national expressions of resentment and rebellion, albeit in a fictional Japanese setting after WWIII. Both the manga and the anime feature film adaptation open with an explosion in Tokyo, but diverge in how they detail their science and post-war Japan. The masses are split between anti-police rebellions, gangs, the rich and a cult around the titular character, a child with telekinetic powers. But in all of this, it centers a friendship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, two teenage boys in a motorcycle gang who find a psychic child, Takahashi, in the middle of a fight. From here they get embroiled in a conspiracy involving a military coup, scientific experiments on children and growing social revolts in a poverty-striken NeoTokyo.
The movie only does so much with the narrative it adapted from the manga, which was still ongoing as it was released. But the film still finds time to ground its characters as everyday people swept up in forces of power. The core relationship between Tetsuo and Kaneda is a familiar one, with Tetsuo before his transformation being a meek member in the bottom social rung of street gangs and Kaneda being the more upstart, domineering one. Between the explosion of the intro and Tetsuo’s transcendence are military men, politicians, citizens and the criminalized grasping for control. And while little of the politics is spelled out through expository debate scenes in the film, every scene carries a visceral weight of a reckoning with class, re-interpreting the conditions of post-war Japan with a new costume. The manga goes even further in connecting this condition to a global-political one, with the U.S. Army being involved as Akira and Tetsuo ascend to godhood and NeoTokyo crumbles. Kaneda and his surviving street gangster friends fight both this cult and U.S. military encroachment, and when the dust settles after another catastrophe, Kaneda and his friends stand as guards of what’s left of NeoTokyo, denigrating the U.S. military as “terrorists” and suggesting a new beginning for Japan.
If Western Cyberpunk is people residing in the ruins of empire as they are taken over by something else, Japanese Cyberpunk is a document of personhood and politics being torn apart before our very eyes. Even when it braces against the idea of Japan as a nation, it watches as it gets rendered through the seduction and terror of technological development. There’s no going back. But the end of humanity isn’t the end of the world. Kaneda survives Japan’s next apocalypse while Tetsuo and Akira enters a different phase of existence. The two men of “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” form a grotesque yet loving bond as they seek to turn the rest of the world into rust. “Ghost in the Shell” the feature film takes a post-human stance with its protagonist Makato giving long monologues and having silent scenes of self-reflection, while pursuing a cybernetic terrorist who pursues self-determination at the expense of the very order she protects. But such pondering and even radicalism doesn’t guarantee victory the way having a cybernetic arm makes you better arm-wrestler against normal humans. Cole criticizes what he sees as self-centered nihilism in Cyberpunk. I counter that if Cyberpunk is nihilistic its because all the moralizing in the world won’t make things better. But as he suggests, wielding tech in solidarity with the oppressed will.
Antionio Gramsci once observed that people are coaxed by cultural narratives into accepting and aiding their oppressive conditions. But before he outlined his theory of Cultural Hegemony in “The Prison Letters”, he had years of experience as an academic and a communist organizer in Italy. In his essay “Conquest of the State”, he criticizes how his comrades sough to enact change in wider society, only to be captured by society’s interests and stop where they’re are,
Some tendencies of the proletarian and socialist movement had explicitly posed as the essential deed of the revolution the organization of workers by trade, and on this basis established their propaganda and their action. The syndicalist movement appeared, for a moment, to be the true interpreter of Marxism, the true interpreter of the truth.
The error of syndicalism consists of this: in assuming as a permanent fact, as the ongoing form of association, the trade union with its present form and functions, which are imposed and not proposed, and thus cannot have a constant direction capable of development. Syndicalism, which presented itself as initiator of a libertarian “spontaneous” tradition, has been in truth one of the many disguises of the abstract and Jacobin spirit(…)
The most serious error of the socialist movement has been of a similar nature to that of the syndicalists. Participating in the general activity of human society in the state, the socialists forgot that their position should remain essentially one of criticism, of antithesis. They allowed themselves to be absorbed by reality, not dominate it.
Likewise, even with their vast depictions of cyberspace and cityscapes, the consequences of Neo-liberalism as depicted in the most iconic Cyberpunk works is often centered onto a local body, whether in America, Europe or Japan. Because of this, its full of a lot of the cultural baggage from each respective region, with everything beyond that being in shadow. Showing the badlands is one thing, doing something about it, or properly assessing its inhabitants and the effect the “civilized” world has on it, is a different task. Even video games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2077 and the Deus Ex series present an uncertain, gray world of survival, where change is a far-fetched proposition compared to what you go through in the moment. When they do try to portray the subaltern or the colonized, its often awkward at best, even if one has the ability to choose to play as a Black person or Person of Color. On the other side of their politics, the most cooperative and egalitarian proposals for change within these games are the equivalent of pulling teeth, a matter of negotiating with varying self-interests and prejudices as opposed to a sudden raising of consciousness in the face of dire circumstances and revelations. You’re given options to settle things nonviolently at the expense of visceral thrills, but none of these settings give you the illusion that you’ll be the next Martin Luther King Jr.. Even the nonviolent option of the original Deus Ex requires somebody else to lose, and in that case the losers are Asians and the homeless.
And yet from the boundaries of early Cyberpunk (and also before the release of Deus Ex, to readjust the timeline), the Wachowskis would synthesize “The Matrix”. This is a major cinematic work combining elements of Japanese Cyberpunk and Hong Kong cinema with elements of French postmodernism, fashion, LGBT subtext and religion. All to present an inspiring message: you can break through these fortresses, because they’re ultimately just constructs. As filled with independent filmmaker spirit yet bankrolled by Hollywood as it is, it is this possibility, coupled with later developments in and out of Cyberpunk, which bring everything into the contemporary. The borders of Western and Eastern Cyberpunk would break away just as the Internet would become a major development, connecting their futures to globalization, immigration and cultural exchange. Cyberpunk would go from a nightmare to a fashion trend and a statement. And however surface and commerical this transition ultimately is, I argue that it is this shift lead by the Wachowskis that is behind why a contingent of LGBT people are passionately trying to salvage Cyberpunk from CD Projekt Red, whether they choose to play their latest game or not.
The Wachowski’s coming out has prompted a decade-long reevaluation of gender divergence and sexual expression in not just the trilogy, but the rest of the genre. As that reevaluation reveals, the gays have been here all along. Growing awareness of trans issues in organizing and activism has created a wave of critical yet rehabilitative engagement with fiction, porn, mass media and fashion. But extracting substance from these often flawed works and exploitative industries leads to enclaves of individual consumption, where we enshrine our own relationship to media above all else. To explain what I mean by this: The nature of mass media and its emphasis on accessibility means that the exploits of the Rebel Alliance can speak to both the depressed communist trans woman in her apartment and the comfortable middle-class conservative with a white picket fence. This happens in spite of and because of the efforts of Lucasfilm to align the details of that heroism with details from current and historical events. People who are otherwise moderate in their politics unironically cosplay as Stormtroopers, named after the German shock soldiers of WWI, while right-wingers have grabbed onto “The Last Jedi” as a culture war target with its depiction of not just Luke Skywalker’s disillusionment with the Jedi, but also with Rey’s prominent character development, along with the presence of John Boyega and Alice Tran as Black and Vietnamese people respectively playing major characters.
Similarly, Gibson’s depiction of Night City in Neuromancer sings with details of smogy cities, decay, stratification and bodies of the alienated, but the novel throughout carries undercurrent of fear, underlining in different aspects extrapolations from technical discoveries, orientalism and a reluctance with the idea of transhumanism. There are ways in which these undercurrents colors how gender divergence is portrayed. For instance, there is this description from Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic”,
The meet was set for the Drome at 2300, but I rode the tube three stops past the closest platform and walked back. Immaculate procedure. I checked myself out in the chrome siding of a coffee kiosk, your basic sharp-faced Caucasoid with a ruff of stiff, dark hair. The girls at Under the Knife were big on Sony Mao, and it was getting harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic folds. It probably wouldn’t fool Ralfi Face, but it might get me next to his table. The Drome is a single narrow space with a bar down one side and tables along the other, thick with pimps and handlers and a arcame array of dealers. The Magnetic Dog Sisters were on the door that night, and I didn’t relish trying to get out past them if things didn’t work out. They were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds. One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in the tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.
But is this positive trans representation, or is it just pretty set dressing for Cyperpunk’s landscape of chrome and wires? While Gibson’s bibliography is undoubtedly full of classics, it leans towards the latter through its overall description and characterization. Gibson may be not a self-identified Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, but I wouldn’t exactly count him as an trans ally. He hasn’t done as much for trans people even on a representational level as the Wachowskis or even the “Cyberpunk” tabletop series has, even if the latter subtracts from your character’s “humanity” stat if you transition for some reason. As noted before, Lily Wachowski has spoken openly about how well the transformative narrative within “The Matrix” lines up with lived trans experiences, and how happy she is to witness people connect that to their own lives. But the contents of that representation speaks differently to different people, and the Wachowskis aren’t every trans woman. Still, their efforts to build from their creative forebears, not to mention their status as trans creatives in a post-AIDS epidemic media landscape, are notable.
While you could liken their creative method to collage-making, the Wachowskis were right to advocate for cinema that reflects a diverse audience, in anticipation of a globalized future. Their taking from Chinese action cinema are obvious before you grok the exact details with that famous “Everything’s A Remix” video essay. But the trilogy takes a further step and make its racially diverse cast of characters have depth beyond culural signifiers of exoticism. Everything from Lawerine Fishburne’s Morpheus and Gloria Foster as the Oracle, to Harold Perrineau’s Link and Collin Chau’s Seraph in the sequels, and finally Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss’s star turns represent an earnest effort to put Black people and People of Color in heroic and complicated positions. On a representational level this is significant in an industry still allergic to non-white media after the Oscar wins of Moonlight and Parasite, Monkey’s Paw studio productions, and even the billion-dollar success of Marvel’s Black Panther. But more significant to Cyberpunk as a genre is how the movie’s blend of themes, motiffs and filmmaking techniques tackles the genre’s Orientalism and Eurocentralism by placing them in sharp contrast through its plot. While the story begins in a synecdoche of American urban life, over the course of the film this stand-in for normalcy and conformity is twisted, chopped and dissolved through an arc of personal discovery and collective rebellion. The better parts of the sequels are ones that detail the society of Zion, as a mix of religiousity, pragmatic militarism and sensual play even as they live literally above Earth’s core. But the central arc, and how it affects the simulated world, is what LGBT authors and academics have been mapping a trans reading onto for years,
“It seems you have been leading two lives, Mr Anderson.”
One of these lives is cisgender and one is real, a very obvious comment on that fact that many trans people do lead two lives for potentially decades. Before transition, trans people are always playing two roles, attempting to fit into cisgender-normative society, playing along for appearances just like Neo at the office. We are often not out to everyone at once; sometimes no one else knows or only friends know, or we hide the fact we’re transgender from work.
“One of these lives has a future, and the other … does not,” Smith says with finality.
The attempted suicide rate for trans people is 41%, and as I’ll go into later, Lana did attempt suicide before she came out. Smith here is trying to convince Neo to stay with the status quo, to not come out. He’s saying that if you become transgender, you don’t have a future—a fear many trans people have faced.
This and the religious theming of the series has made movie a success not just with the nerds who are already into Cyberpunk, but also a much wider-audience. Entire books have been written about its religious themes alone, by Christians and Buddhists alike. And as contested as it is, the original finale intertwines everything the sisters wanted to say about artificial intelligence, faith and militarism within the scope of a Blockbuster. Granted, the creation myth around “The Matrix” is a little contentious due to how much the Wachowskis wear their inspiration on their sleeve. Fans and detractors alike have noted that the movie takes liberally from Cyberpunk ficiton philosophy. To some this is a positive, like in the famous “Everything is A Remix” video essay on the film or in Bob Chipman’s “Really That Good” video where he compassionately points out how much of a paradigm shift it has been for American action cinema and beyond. To others like critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is all a sign of hackery pushing away more worthy art. As he reviews two other movies “Destiny” and “Adopted Son”,
I don’t mean to suggest that movies from cultures as remote as these wouldn’t pose challenges for casual moviegoers, who might think watching them would be too much like going to school. But such challenges might often prove liberating and exciting — a vastly different experience from watching, say, The Matrix, which claims to be offering a new slant on how the universe works, though it’s recycling elements from just about every other SF action movie in recent memory. If any new ideas find their way into the mix, they’re inevitably obscured by all the shopworn trimmings.
Rosenbaum is more directly critical in his review of “The Thirteenth Floor” a techno-thriller about a man’s experiences with an elaborate period simulation and in a more contemporary world whose theming coincides with that of The Matrix, but in a way that signals an unhealthy desire by moviegoing audiences to escape reality,
This is the fourth such thriller I’ve seen in as many weeks, and if any thought at all can be deemed the source of these pictures cropping up one after the other — with the exception of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, a film with more than generic commercial kicks on its mind — it might be an especially low estimation of what an audience is looking for at the movies. The assumed desire might be expressed in infantile and emotional terms: “I don’t like the world, take it away.” In other words, for filmmakers stumped by the puzzle of how to address an audience assumed to be interested only in escaping without reminding them of what they’re supposed to be escaping from, virtual-reality thrillers seem made to order. They imply significance by indulging in glib self-referential hints that movies are just a form of dreaming anyway, imply that anything that suggests the real world is — or might as well be — a hallucination, and are usually “thoughtful” enough to include gobs of violence on the assumption that even if the world is no longer desirable, kicking ass for any reason at all is. And in the cases of The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor, the two studio blockbusters in the batch (the other two are Open Your Eyes and eXistenZ), a worshipful attitude toward digital technology appears to be the only factor that justifies dressing up the conceits about alternative realities as science fiction instead of as some less prestigious and more hybrid form like science fantasy. As the press book for The Thirteenth Floor eagerly puts it, “Over 2,000 years ago, Plato postulated that the ‘real’ world exists only in our imagination. The technology of modern society has begun to prove Plato’s point.” Thanks a lot, modern society; tough luck, Kosovo Albanian and Serb civilians.
As much as the transformative potential of Cyberpunk as a genre is limited by the forces of commerce, the very commerce Rosenbaum asserts pushes “The Matrix” onto unwitting audiences instead of “liberating and exciting” works, this is a shallow reading of the film. While the movie is definitely a gumbo of disparate genres, motifs and even philosophies, its all in service of presenting a story where people struggle with the forces of alienation and exploitation. Later, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions” would complicate this narrative with explorations of spirituality and the costs of revolutionary struggle. Whether the sequels succeed can be answered in part by how iconic the aforementioned, “Red Pill” line has becoming compared to the more deflating revelation by The Architect in “Reloaded”. Which points to one of the biggest strengths of The Matrix: its snappy and stylish. Sure the movie is 2 hours long, certainly longer than their lesbian thriller Bound. But everything about The Matrix signals a youthful love for not just the movies but also ideas, with the Wachowskis claiming to have seen something in the Ridley Scott adaptation that would come to define Cyberpunk’s look before everyone else did,
The Wachowskis loved morally murky ’50s classics such as Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train, as well as such ’60s and ’70s thrillers as Repulsion and The Conversation. But one notably tough-to-replicate big-screen experience occurred in 1982, when the teenage siblings took in repeated screenings of Blade Runner—a grim, grimy future noir that was exiled from theaters almost as soon as it opened. “Everyone hated Blade Runner, except for us,” Lana said. (…)
For much of the early ’90s, when they weren’t writing spec scripts or building elevator shafts, the Wachowskis fantasized about creating a sci-fi comic book that would allow them to sample all of their cultural obsessions. “We were interested in a lot of things,” said Lilly, reeling off a list of the siblings’ shared pursuits: “making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life.” They were also into Hong Kong action movies; early film fixations such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 French sci-fi noir Alphaville; the power of the still ascending internet; and Homer’s The Odyssey, which each sibling had read multiple times.
Writing by hand, the Wachowskis filled up multiple notebooks with ideas for what they called The Matrix, their creative sessions soundtracked by the aggro-rock white noise of Rage Against the Machine and Ministry. Eventually they scrapped the comic book concept and decided to download years’ worth of concepts and sketches into a screenplay.(..)Mattis, who had studied philosophy in college, recognized similarities between The Matrix and the ideas of René Descartes, the 17th-century French thinker who wrote about man’s inability to know what is truly reality. “When I first read the script, I called them and said, ‘This is amazing! You wrote a script about Descartes! But how do I sell this thing?'” Mattis began circulating their script in 1995, right around the time that the internet—once the dial-up domain of academics, hackers, and military employees—was on its way to becoming a broadband phenomenon. Online, reality was becoming bendable. From the moment users picked a screen handle or even an email address, they were getting the chance to rewrite their own existence and create a whole new version of themselves—new name, new gender, new hometown, new anything. People were stepping into their own virtual worlds every day, and the Wachowskis’ script for The Matrix had a question for them: Now that we can create as many realities as we want, how do we know which one is actually “real”?
The siblings were in the right place at the right time. From a middle-class childhood, they would stumble into an industry paying millions for the next big screenplay, and while their first effort, “Assassins”, would undergo drastic changes to the point of no longer being theirs, they would hone their penchant for taking from multiple sources and harnessing them into a cinematic vision. Their youthful penchant for heavy-reading and research explains why their movies flirt so openly with ideas, or at least give an impression of well-read, radical filmmakers with something to say. I don’t agree with Rosenbaum’s assessment that this is just another shallow blockbuster. There’s a thinking core in the film that’s worth criticizing on its own merits. What I want to highlight specifically is how The Matrix trilogy addresses post-modernism and portrays rebellion, and how that tracks with the political content of Cyberpunk itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There’s a scene where Neo pulls out a gadget from a copy of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” before handing it to a guest at his door. Later in the movie, Morpheus reveals the truth of the world to Neo, and in a simulation of a desolate place says, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” But Baudrillard’s concepts are wildly different from how the Wachowski’s use him. Whereas The Matrix depicts its simulation as that of a dream lulling humanity to sleep while using it as a battery for machines, Baudrillard’s actual description of The Simulacrum more resembles that of Disneyland, a curated space filled with caricatures and people in costume acting as favorite cartoon characters, than an elaborate ploy to distract people into compliance while draining them of their essence. Reality withers away as people reside in Signs, but the making of those Signs is an expression of a human need to sort out the chaos of the universe. In fairness, this can seem pretty opaque in the original text even with Baudrillard’s usage of metaphors and hyperbole. But its a framework he developed and applied to contemporary conditions, on subjects ranging from celebrity to sexuality to even the Iraq war (if you want a trip, read his thoughts on transgenderism sometime). One such work where he applies this framework in action is his pessimistic travelogue “America”, where he applies this framework (among other things) to American “natural wonders” like the Grand Canyon, cities like New York, and even the Reagan presidency.
Clearly the Wachowskis saw something in analysis like this: a demystification of social order as an empty spectacle onto which we implant meaning. Not so much a mirage as it is a space shaped by values. Thing is, Baudrillard lays this idea out from an academic context in the wake of leftist revolt in the 1960s and 70s. Doing your research is one thing, but condensing complex ideas like Simulacrums and Quantum Mechanics requires a fair bit more nuance than what would make into a Hollywood screenplay. “Welcome to the desert of the real” was used to denote the rot of the real world as everything is subsumed into the simulacrum. But in the movie, its both a piece of exposition and a quip, not unlike that of the famous “Take the red pill” line. Its a direct quotation, sure, but in the context of the movie is merely a one-liner for a big revelation as opposed to a denotation of a general condition. To the Wachowskis something can be done about it, to Baudrillard the opposite is true: the Simulacrum can’t be broken out of. It is all-encompassing, and has already affected everything from our personhood to even how we try to diverge through gender and sexuality. There is no “real” to go back to.
To be fair, the Wachowskis aren’t the only creative who struggle with post-modernism. Usually when someone reads a philosophical work they try to apply it, either in thought or in action. Given the world of difference between academia and the “real” world, there is a risk of misunderstanding or oversimplification. Going back to Brent Wood and his earlier look on Cyberpunk literature, he criticizes what he sees as Scott Bukatman’s reductiveness in trying to assess post-modernist texts. One concept Bukatman attempts to harness is Deleuze and Guattari’s famous idiom “Body Without Organs” (BwO as Bukatman refers to it). Whereas Baukatman sees BwO as a condition where individuals are reduced to singular organs depending on need, with said utility serving theological, authoritarian ends, Wood sees it differently while connecting Deleuze and Guattari’s examination of Burroughs,
To my mind Bukatman is off course in his concern with the malleability of bodies. The Body without Organs is more than a figure useful for illustrating the intermingling of the human body and technology. Its principle import is as one of the many deconstructive “sets of practices” Deleuze and Guattari advocate as a way to dismantle the (ideologically-determined) “self” in its relationship to organization and judgement. The BwO, they write, is a “practice,” not a “concept”; a “limit,” not a “goal”; the “full egg before the extension of the organism and the organization of the organs” (153). They relate it specifically to what they call “desire,” which is “a process without telos, intensity without intention” (Boundas 12). The BwO is deconstructive in that one can never achieve it; it is “always swinging between the surfaces that stratify it and the plane that sets it free” (Deleuze and Guattari 161). Their translator, Brian Massumi, paraphrases bodies without organs as “bundles of virtual affects” (93) in his discussion of the making-monstrous of a man who tries to become a dog. My own preference is to understand the BwO as a sort of ideal anarchist or Taoist existence in which energy flows freely within and through the individual, moving one between order and chaos; one works at it but can never completely achieve it.
Deleuze and Guattari theorize various BwOs at various stages of “fullness.” The full BwO, as opposed to the empty, “drugged body” or “masochist body,” is illustrated by the already quoted passage drawn from the opening routine of Naked Lunch. On the way to the full BwO, one encounters several types of “emptied” bodies, bodies without organs whose circulation of intensities nevertheless remains blocked. Deleuze and Guattari turn once again to Burroughs for an example of an empty body: “the drugged body, the experimental schizo,” indicated by the iteration of a scheme by Dr Benway’s colleague Dr Schaefer, also drawn from Naked Lunch:12
the human body is scandalously inefficient. Instead of a mouth and an anus to get out of order why not have one all-purpose hole to eat and eliminate? We could seal up the nose and mouth, fill in the stomach, make an air hole direct into the lungs where it should have been in the first place. (150)
So its much harder to translate postmodern theory into praxis or utilize it in your own thought than it seems. Whenever a well-read communist talks about praxis, they usually describe it as a way of utilizing theory in the real world, usually involving street activism or even recruitment for a leftist organization. But with any theory, there is a hazard of oversimplification or outright distortion. Sure, there’s Marx’s famous last line in his Theses of Feuerbach,
Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
But the point of the entire piece is to try to answer the following general question: how you understand the world? Further, how do this understanding affect your moving through the world, and could there be something else you need to understand as a subject before you can affect it? For Marx, the way affect the world is through class struggle. But examining the many Marxist/Anarchist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries since shows how this understanding can shift. Some would harden into dogmatism and irrelevance while others like the USSR, Cuba, post-colonial Africa and China would become macro-examples of the contradictions of implementing revolutionary politics on a wider scale during the Cold War. Just because you start as a revolution doesn’t mean you are on the right side of history forever. Even Stalin understood that. And a lot of this development would take place after the fall of the USSR, which would be disastrous for many in modern day Russia, if not for most of the world. Meanwhile China, after decades of opposition to the USSR and even collaboration with the U.S. since the Sino-Soviet split, would go under its own revisions and begin a path of adjustment and development in a globalized, capitalist world.
It is in these and other conditions where post-modernist thought surveys the world. The 80s were defined by rebellion, neoliberalism and threat of a nuclear winter, while the 90s for the West was defined by Capitalist optimism on one hand and suppression on the other. While the TV show “Friends” depicted a simulacrum of New York within an American sitcom, the Clinton Administration would bill the Three Strikes Law to outdo the Republicans “tough on crime” political campaign. This has expanded the stringent policing of Reagan’s War on Drugs into a new decade while putting millions of Black people in prison since. Baudrillard often aimed his framework of the Simulacrum squarely at American exceptionalism, but as the organized left retreated and old institutions crumbled, what’s left is a yawning emptiness which would be consumed by American exceptionalism and mythology. America’s nature is perfect, as is its political ascension, and it consumes all, even the imagination of European intellectuals. But after a seething criticism of Reagan’s legacy, he has this to say of the country as a whole, and the hopelessness of rebellion, even class struggle, in the American landscape,
This country is without hope. Even its garbage is clean, its trade lubricated, its traffic pacified. The latent, the lacteal, the lethal – life is so liquid, thesigns and messages are so liquid, the bodies and the cars so fluid, the hair so blond, and the soft technologies so luxuriant, that a European dreams of death and murder, of suicide motels, of orgies and cannibalism to counteract the perfection of the ocean, of the light, of that insane ease of life, to counteract the hyperreality of everything here.
Hence the phantasy of a seismic fracture and a crumbling into the Pacific, which would be the end of California and of its criminal and scandalous beauty. For it is unbearable, while one is still alive, to pass beyond the difficulty of being, simply to pass into the fluidity of sky, cliffs, surf, and deserts, into the hypothesis of happiness alone.
But even the seismic challenge is still only a flirtation with death; it still forms part of the natural beauty, as do history or revolutionary theory, whose hyperrealist echoes come here to die with the discreet charm of something from a previous existence. All that remains of a violent and historical demand is this graffiti on the beach, facing out to sea, no longer calling upon the revolutionary masses, but speaking to the sky and the open space and the transparent deities of the Pacific: PLEASE,REVOLUTION!
And yet is it irrelevant that the largest naval base, that of the Pacific 7th Fleet – the very incarnation of American world-wide domination and the greatest firepower in the world – also contributes to this insolent beauty? In the very place where the beautiful magic of Santa Ana blows, the desert wind that crosses over the mountains to stay for four or five days, before scattering the Fog, scorching the earth, making the sea sparkle, and crushing those who are used to the mist – the most beautiful thing about the Santa Ana is spending the night on the beach, swimming there as if it were daytime, and tanning, like vampires, under the moonlight.
This country is without hope.
Many celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for a better world, but Baudrillard is much more scathing in his assessment of the world going forward. For Baudrillard, the world would be subsumed under a geopolitical nightmare brought forth by American exceptionalism. And to the Wachowskis the Berlin Wall falling is cold comfort compared to what’s going on at home. Post-AIDS epidemic and the most the gays get are half-hearted well-wishes and threats of ostracization, with nightclubs and BDSM being one of the few arguable refuges they have. Hip-Hop and drugs are in vogue, but not exactly to be benefit of Black and brown people. And for the straight, white man everything is supposed to fall in their lap, cushy office job and all.
But it isn’t enough. This is where the danger of Cyberpunk is not just tantalizing, but liberating. No longer are you suffocated by middle-class norms. No longer do you have to be constrained by respectibility or even responsibility. You can let yourself go wild, discover your true self, and the kicker is that it turns out that you’re actually really good at what you do. Because the taste, style and skills you’ve been nurturing have been right all along. You were meant to be here, and you may just be The One.
Limited as it is, its hard to overstate just how resonant of a message this would become. But the Wachowskis would find themselves having to defend themselves from charges of encouraging dark impulses within the broader public and make more concrete the philosophical parts of their mythos. And so we have the rest of the trilogy, along with the franchise that would spawn from it. It is now time for Cyberpunk to try to become both political treatse and merchandise.
As fans would learn the hard way (and are still in denial about) with media like “Star Wars” and even “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, there are problems with trying to continue a vision born out of a spur-of-the-moment fusion of genres, aesthetics and sensibilities. Not that the sisters don’t try. “Reloaded” has an infamous twist revealing that Morpheus, Neo and Trinity’s rebellion was a lie, leading into “Revolutions” redemptive, conciliatory narrative. Meanwhile tie-in media like “AniMatrix”, “Path of Neo”, “Enter The Matrix” and “The Matrix Online” would broaden the scope of the story to through animation and video games. But with their restriction, some of these tie-in media made by other creatives and studios, sometimes do a better job with the wordbuilding and theming of the series than the movies. But “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” have the uneviable task of trying to recapture the zeitgeist from the first film while offering a critique of not just tech’s role in our daily lives, but also of the previous film’s easier-to-swallow narrative of heroic, individualistic rebellion.
An admirable effort, even as the movies themselves are profoundly flawed. “Reloaded” suffers from languish pacing and sometimes overlong, bombastic action scenes. Its everything from the original film turned up to eleven, and yet this ambition breaks what makes the first movie so resonant. The snappy dialogue of the original falls apart when its interloctors try to discuss Big Ideas. But within “Reloaded” there’s a harsh revelation: the Hero’s Journey is a lie. Neo finds out that his journey was only meant to continue the simulation for another cycle, not liberate humanity. The Oracle turns out to have been stringing him along the whole time. But, somehow, Neo has overcome the physical bounds of fate, having some of the same abilities in the real world as he does in the simulation. And in “Revolutions”, Neo makes the ultimate sacrifice for a peace that will last “For as long as it can”. But in comparison to the previous entry, its more like the equivalent of watching an action-packed yet thinly contextualized OVA. It carries over the critique and ambiguity of the previous film, but chooses the least interesting ways to resolve them. And the implications of how a technologically-advanced society deals with self-conscious AI turn out to be more interesting than Neo and Trinty’s heroic sacrifice, which turns out to have proven Morpheus’s reglious zealotry right but in a much different way. There’s no destruction of the system after all, just a sacrifice to tame its bloodlust. This has lead to fan speculation that Zion and the rest of the outside world is just another layer of the simulation, though it has since has been rejected if not outright debunked (Guess we’ll see how they resolve that in “The Matrix 4”).
As “Revolutions” reveals, the Wachowskis are just a couple of kinky hippies with imagination and style to spare, as opposed to the romantic primitivists, secret religious fundamentalists or pessimistic post-modernists that fans have been pegging them as for years. For some, this is disappointing. But maybe it couldn’t have been any other way. The series’s dealing with post-modernist philosophy and religion is the equivalent of a beat sample in House or Trance music: its just something there to tie the rhythm together, and its more about the feeling and even the desires of the individual creators than it is about the lesson. Its not that there’s nothing there or that people can’t take things from it. Burning Man, Chicago’s House scene and Woodstock wouldn’t exist if it was impossible to craft something around other people’s creative efforts. Its just that the very nature of the Wachowski’s creative process shows that they are probably better at crafting a vision than they are at contexualizing it. And while one can certainly build a group (or cult) around liking something, that shouldn’t be the end of it.
Then again, who can say that they have truly understood Baudrillard or post-modernism in general? Like Nietzsche, it resonsates because the observations and poetics within line up with the anxieties of the day, and both have managed to travel beyond their time as these anxieties exapanded, split and been codified. While Baudrillard hasn’t been egregiously misquoted by TERFs trying to legalslate transgender people from existence, the opacity of post-modernist thought due to its roots in academia can mean that misconstruing it is as easy as dismissing it because of its opacity. A similar thing can be said of God and how they are utilized for everything from revolution to apartheid. Achille Mbembe wrote entire papers on how religiousity and mythological civilization is used to denote who lives and who dies. In “Necropolitics”, Mbembes traces a line from Western ontology since Hegel and later Marx to how biopolitics, the very denotion of who lives and who dies coined by Michel Foucault, is carried out in the real world. Through this he seeks to bridge the gap between post-modernist, psychoanalysis thought, race and class struggle, as he does when describing states like South Africa and Palestine while quoting Franz Fanon and connecting it with how religion is weaponized,
Frantz Fanon describes the spatialization of colonial occupation in vivid terms. First and foremost, he argues, colonial occupation entails a division of space into compartments. It involves the setting of boundaries and internal frontiers epitomized by barracks and police stations; it is regulated by the language of pure force, immediate presence, and frequent and direct action; and it is premised on the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. But more important, this is how necropower operates: “The town belonging to the colonized people . . . is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of
bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees.” In this case, sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.
Late modern colonial occupation differs in many ways from early modern occupation, particularly in its combining of the disciplinary, the biopolitical, and the necropolitical. The most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine. Here, the colonial state derives its fundamental claim of sovereignty and legitimacy from the authority of its own particular narrative of history and identity. This narrative is itself underpinned by the idea that the state has a divine right to exist, a narrative that competes with another for the same sacred space. Because the two narratives are incompatible and the two populations are inextricably intertwined, a demarcation of the territory on the basis of pure identity is quasi-impossible. Violence and sovereignty, in this case, claim a divine foundation: peoplehood itself is forged by the worship of one deity, and national identity is imagined as an identity against an Other, against other deities.
Trying to encapsulate all of this in media is a tough task, but for both obvious and subtle reasons such attempts can only be encapsulated into what will become mueseum pieces over time. Deleuze and Guittari draw a lot of examples of Burroughs in their mapping out of political and philosophical processes. They both try to steer people away from fixed notions of success and failures and urge the reader to look for the in-between spaces, their offshoots and developments. This is what makes the rhizzome. For example, in this day and age, one can’t just read a few classics and think you have a handle on how the world works. Depending on your education and how you use the internet, you will be learning beyond the classroom. You could learn about radical feminism through osmosis, through social media conversations, before choosing to pick up a book and try to learn about it directly (or not). And even if you have the book itself, the conversation won’t stop there. Sooner or later the honeymoon period you have with a text ends. You’ll probably have multiple arguments about it. You or someone else will point out the problems with a particular text’s idea of sexual oppression, like those of Shulamith Firestone. And these critiques/interpretations will probably get spun off into different blogs, or even essays published on WordPress. But the connections between these spaces aren’t linear, either. Depending on your social network, rage or environment you could stop at a particular interpretation of the text and just stick with it for the rest of your life. You may have encountered that text in a reader instead of tackling the book the whole way through and find that it is so fundamentally reprehensible that you want nothing to do with it. Maybe you find out this path isn’t right after all and reverse into a completely different text or philosophy in response, or simply move onto another lesson in an educational setting, reading group, cult or political organization.
But whether you accept a chosen text or not, there was still a bit of development there. This development may not make you into the splitting image of Freud or Marx, but rather something else that’s adjusted to its environment. Call it revisionism or a betrayal if you like, that’s just how language and politics work. They have to work that way in order for one to even begin to speak of the needs of the people. But its not that these old texts are therefore irrelevant and shouldn’t be looked at. As much as Deleuze and Guittari criticize the psychoanalysis and Orthodox Marxism of their day, what they end up doing through their process is a rexamination and recontruction of these two concepts as if to save them from obscurity. Through “The Logic of Sense”, Deleuze criticizes among other things the kind of shallow psychoanalysis that ends up denoting the behavior of schizophrenics with pure nonsense. But he also attempts to contruct an understanding around sense beyond notions of common sense and even idealism. This ends up with Deleuze re-examining Freudian psychology, child-rearing, Greek mythology and Nietzsche’s Will to Power, problematizing them but also assimilating them into an examination of The Surface, upon which sense, and then language, begins to distinguish oneself and the world.
Deleuze and Guittari say that Borroughs, for all of his transgression and personal transformative journey, only goes so far in his writing. “Naked Lunch” may be repulsive, opaque and strange, and Borroughs the man from a rich family who would later kill his wife Joan Vollmer, but as Brent Woods describes,
Though happy to borrow from Burroughs’ texts to illustrate their ideas, Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, are skeptical that his work actually succeeds in doing what he intends it to. Before explicitly defining what they mean by their term “rhizome-book,” they identify two other models: the “root-book,” which is organized like a dichotomous tree in which one becomes two, two become four, and so on; and the “radicle-system,” in which the principle root has been aborted and a multiplicity of secondary roots have been grafted onto it. Burroughs’ work is held up as an illustration of the radicle model:
Take William Burroughs’ cut-up method: the folding of one text onto another, which constitutes multiple and even adventitious roots (like a cutting), implies a supplementary dimension to that of the texts under consideration. In this supplementary dimension of folding, unity continues its spiritual labor. (6)
Burroughs’ cut-ups are thus consigned to the museum of modernist obsolescence along with Joyce and Nietzsche. In their respective works, “the world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world: radicle chaosmos rather than root-cosmos” (6). Deleuze and Guattari argue that the multiple is not made by adding more dimensions, but by subtracting a dimension from the number given in order to open the work to the forces of chance. Burroughs is thus figured as a mere “adding machine” (an ironic comment on his family heritage and his creation of the “Third Mind” with friend and collaborator Brion Gysin).
Obviously the Wachowskis aren’t as academic when mapping out the intersections of religion, technology and humanity, but not for lack of trying. Through not just the sequels but also spin-offs like “Animatrix”, “Enter the Matrix” and “The Matrix Online”, they try valiantly to expand upon and critique the very heroic narrative they utilize as big-budget directors. “Star Wars” as franchise had decades of fanfare after “Return of the Jedi” before it even began to criticize its very foundations, much to the chagrin of fans wedded to the simple narrative of the original trilogy. The Wachowskis did it all, with the aid of talented animators, fight choreographers and game developers, in under 5 years. They tried to strike at the very system they became a part of through their seemingly overnight success. But they couldn’t escape it. Its all still a consumer product. The sequels may be a daring attempt at deconstructing the violent heroism of the first, but its a critique sold alongside Samsung “Matrix” brand cellphones and collectable popcorn buckets. The dissonances between idealism and pragmatism are as jarring and sometimes awkward within the films as it is when discussing it with fans of the first movie, let alone with people tarring “Cyberpunk 2077” as a betrayal of their personal values. But for all of the passion and vitrol this discussion, such discussion only goes back to a cruder equivalent of what Baker-Whitelaw does: looking at the insufficient efforts of the media and simply suggesting consumption of other better media as a solution. There have only been a few comprehensive attempts at bridging the gaps between media and real life, outnumbered by demands that the former better reflect their fanbases while the latter moves on without them.
Even with their burgeoning pop-cultural influence and earnest wrestling with ideas, the Wachowskis found themselves becoming both old-school and the very embodiment of commercializaton that George Lucas has, and in around the same time. East Asian media is no longer just a cult-sensation in America and Europe. Anime and manga would find a mainstream, international audience with the rise of Cartoon Network’s Toonami alongside companies like Tokyopop, Anime Network. With the rise of the internet burgeoning online communities in IRC, LiveJournal and even Geocities would provide a direct link to what the Wachowski’s were inspired by. As “The Matrix” franchise waned, “Ghost in the Shell” would find second life through the anime series “Stand Alone Complex” airing through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, adapting the original’s philosophical pondering and political commentary to the format of an crime series. And it is through this format that the show tackled multiple topics on the meaning of (trans)humanity through a chillingly prescient “Laughing Man” arc depicting memetic warfare and hacktivism, to another arc depicting a quasi-spiritual, nationalist terror cult. Alongside this, Amercian action moviemaking would shift into a rougher Cinéma vérité ethos as exemplified by director Paul Greengrass from “The Bourne Supremacy” onward, at the expense of the acrobatics the Wachowskis emulated from Hong Kong cinema. Kinetic East Asian cinema still exists today, thanks in no small part to the directorial efforts of Johnnie To, Joon Boon Ho, Yimou Zhang, Stephen Chow and even Takashi Miike. Its just that the Americans and Europeans are choosing to do their own thing after attempting to get what the Wachowskis and Joel Silver had.
But the Wachowskis can’t be blamed for dealing a death blow to Cyberpunk as a mainstream sensation or for “selling out” its ethos. Mass media and fanboy bitching can’t control everything, though both have certainly harnessed the energy of their times into passionate fan discussion and blogging. If not even the Wachowskis can be in vogue forever, who can? With all of its contradictions and shortcomings, the Matrix franchise demonstrates unspeakable difficulties with trying to wrest a proactive ethos out of postmodern and even religious readings of material conditions in a post-USSR, capitalist world. But the wane of The Matrix series that a project of reclaiming Cyberpunk will involve more than just supporting the right media or critiquing the bad kind. Capitalism and activism have in many ways outpaced Cyberpunk itself. Even “The Matrix” has become old-school.
Cyberpunk has become a fashion. It has yet to become a fully fleshed-out statement in its own right, even with the earnest efforts of the Wachowskis and early Science Fiction writers to grapple with philosophy, religion, politics and a changing world. As it turns out, its everyday people grappling with technology around the world who would turn out to be the Cyberpunks these stories depict, and in a much wider political spectrum than their authors knew. One reason for this, as Edwards observes in his video essay “The Death of Cyberpunk”, is the rise of Social Media and how it is for better and for worse a realization of many predictions of Cyberspace as a place of alternative personalities, fabrication and community. With this development, Cyberpunk has become a retro-futuristic affect more than the active vision it once was. If it seems as though Cyberpunk has stagnated since then, you can thank Facebook. Social Media is a large part of the Cyberpunk world people onced imagine, only instead of Gibson’s collective, consentual hallucination, its a concentration of mass media in your pocket where in theory you could choose different identities and politics, while in practice most choose to reinforce what they have already taken for granted.
For every LGBT person on a journey of self-discovery and political awakening at various stages in their life, there are dozens who see us as a threat and share articles funded by the Heritage Foundation arguing for us to be denied rights. Far from eliminating racism and antiblackness, the internet would be harnessed by white supremacists beyond the confines of the notorious website Stormfront, and even the recent bans of Donald Trump, Parler and Gab doesn’t mean the fight is over. One doesn’t even need to be a self-described Klansman to perpetuate racial terror, with Armenians having to contend with genocide deniers even from the left like Cenk of The Young Turks. And while the internet as we know started to come into being around the time of the first “Matrix” film, corporations, internet personalities, censorship and bills like FOSTA/SESTA, SISEA and EARN-IT since conspire to turn the internet into a digital strip mall. You don’t try to learn coding and craft your own space as one could through GeoCities and early word processors as much as you adjust to the user interfaces of larger websites like Facebook and Twitter. Through this noise and growing concentration, people from Manning to #EndSars have found a way to puncture through the noise and raise awareness on a variety of issues, but they have not ended the war. The war could even be never-ending.
It has been up to people in the streets and on the outskirts of restrictive websites to define Cyberpunk for themselves, where its ficiton leaves them behind. Pondsmith can’t map out every possible gaming scenario as an allegory for every form of oppression in “Cyberpunk 2020” or even “Cyberpunk Red”. But he didn’t need to for Ferguson to trend, or for Gaddafi to be assassinated with worldwide support through social media campaigns. Microsoft’s AI Tay being hijacked by Neo-Nazis and Korone becoming a huge virtual YouTube gamer personality have implications for how people relate to personalities online. The once-held requirement that our stars and idols be “real” may have been displaced entirely, anticipated by Baudrillard’s pessimistic reading of the future, and we have yet to fully grapple with what that means for commerce and democracy. Qanon and its thinly disguised anti-semitism and conspiratorial free association has lead to a failed coup by Trump and his followers on January 6th. Spectacle, surreality and revolt are here for the foreseeable future. But given how social media is shaped, its not a guarantee that people will even see it. Breaking apart these and other bubbles is a challenge for the Cyberpunk, let alone for anyone trying to enact change. Far from making old instutions whiter away or become irrelevant, the internet has turned out to be an extension of them. A new Cyberpunk project would need to be a radical recontexualization of these instutions, as opposed to an escape. And however much its dystopia lines up with present-day anxieties, escape is all that “Cyberpunk 2077” can offer.
With the synthesis, rise, and fall of Cyberpunk, with the stagnation and occasional sparks since, we have to talk about “Cyberpunk 2077”. There are two ways to look at this game: as an attempt to embody the genre the same way Pondsmith’s tabletop game has over the past few decades, and as an adaptation of the content within that tabletop game. But we have to look at the development studio itself. Given CD Projekt Red’s previous efforts in “The Witcher” games and how they approach Cyberpunk as a genre with their latest effort, it has become obvious that the company is Bethesda for people who nitpick the costumes in LARPs.
I don’t mean that as an insult, I’m just describing of what kind of game we are dealing with. “Cyberpunk 2077” is playable. It has some interesting locales. It is a very detailed picture of both Mike Pondsmith’s creation and aspects genre it claims to represent. But through both overexertion and a desire to make a game for a coveted if not ficitious broad demographic of gamers, one is left begging for the depth or strangeness Cyberpunk as fiction has been providing for decades now. This effort has both exposed the limitations of even interactive mediums like video games in being able to fulfill dreams of revolution, and the limits of CD Projekt Red itself. And in the pantheon of Western developers, the Bethesda comparison fits for many reasons. The studio is not technically proficient enough to be Valve. Their game mechanics aren’t as fluid as Arkane Studio’s titles. Their story-telling isn’t developed enough to rival Obsidian or Bioware under EA. And it doesn’t have the legendary reputation of individual members to be Troika Games. The thing we have to understand is that the company mainly built its cache from hardcore gamers for archiving obscure to classic games without DRM, contrary to Valve and Steam, and it has used that to fund passion projects like their interactive adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowsk’s fantasy series. Then they simply leveraged that to get some of the latest games onto their store while making more games from that series, until we are here now, where you get “Cyberpunk 2077” from either GOG and Steam as both of them have a mostly similar game library of mainstream titles with some differences in indie titles.
But if there is one thing the studio has in common with the studios I compare it with, it is a harnessing of gamer/nerd identity to present itself to both consumer and employee alike as the closest thing games development has to a Garden of Eden. In a positive sense, you could say that this is a true sign of a company made by people, “like us”, who unlike the more outwardly corporate offices of EA and Activision are more than willing to get down in the dirt and either take risks with new material or seek out material outside the mainstream, rights-restricted margins of pop culture. But in a cynical sense, this is yet another calculation by a studio seeking out fresh talent and wringing every last drop of passion and physical acumen out of them until the end of the developer cycle. This explains why the game’s marketing campaign gestures wildly towards provacavation, ad of the woman with the huge dick included. That the studio is staffed by chasers at best and transmisogynists at worse is without question, even with the game giving you very limited options to be a trans woman, a trans man or nonbinary. But just as sexism as we know it does not exist without material interest, the developers put that one in-game image of transsexualism as advertising as a reflection of its intended audience: edgelords who wear the decades-ago fight against attempted censors like Jack Thompson on their sleeve to the point of conflating even the lightest criticism of the medium with being “cancelled”. This also explains the game’s muddled to sometimes bad politics. They are just simply giving the people what they want, as long as it doesn’t alienate you, the presumably passionate gamer bro. “Are you not entertained?”
And yet, when you get to the game its only offensive to a point. What I mean is that while the game intends to be shocking and rude, what’s more offensive sometimes than even the game’s depiction of sexual violence is the realization that this is what is the game developers believe maturity is. Its broadly political due to its source material but in a sense of developers covering their asses by playing “both sides” and giving a limited space of choices between these sides. Even the space of one’s criminality is limited to just the main arc against the Arasaka corporation, with Night City Police Department missions you can only either choose to ignore at the cost of experience or do them at the expense of experience and being a bootlicker. Sure, you can kill the cops, but once you do it becomes obvious that what holds them together is a combination of placeholders instead of the intelligent AI the developers hyped up. You don’t get chased they authorities as much as you get kettled in by them, with officers teleporting near you as they shoot you to death even for looking at them funny. Grand Theft Auto V and Saints Row IV this is not.
The game does at least give you some space to play characters within differing shades of gray, at least at the beginning. Whether you start as a Corpo, on the streets as a gangster, or start in the badlands as a “Mad Max”-style mercenary, the game gives you different spaces and personalities to start from. Limited spaces, sure, but at least here the developers seem to have learned the right lesson from the Mass Effect games: if you’re not able to provide the most robust and comprehensive character creation system, give your player just enough for them to fill in the gaps for themselves as they play a character type. The game is definitely saying things through its storytelling, but its nothing that hasn’t already been said by the Wachowskis, Gibson, Pondsmith or Otomo decades ago. And it definitely doesn’t have the punk spirit of Tsukamoto’s films or contemporary indie game projects like “Quadrilateral Cowboy” or even the “Shadowrun Returns” trilogy. It shares aspects of the Immersive Sim design ethos with the later Deus Ex titles and Arkane Studio’s games, where you are placed in detailed game spaces with multiple angles for emmersive play and stats to boot. But this design philosophy is not applied consistently. Some areas in the game have impressive levels of detail, explored by story missions and side quests, which provide some neat spaces for truly creative and thrilling play. Other areas are just empty, as if the developers just put them there to paper over its invisible walls and game world transitions.
To its credit, Cyberpunk 2077 at least has depictions of poverty and oppression not unlike that of Blade Runner (which its source material draws directly from), coupled with explicit statements of expressed ideologies by NPCs that the game then allows you to “choose” albeit in a limited capacity. Walking outside your own apartment in Act 2 exposes you to dozens of NPCs talking about everything from the news to political differences, with varying amounts of articulation and grace (though, has anyone ever actually listened in to an enlightening conversation at their local restaurant?) This gets interesting when you are introduced to Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves), a celebrity-turned-engram who committed a terrorist attack on Japanese corporation Arasaka to, “Combat corporate imperialism”, a dark irony considering both the game’s setting and in-game logs featuring heavy references to Cold War-era geopolitics. Depending on your reading of these logs and characters, you could make the argument that this game, as edgy as it is, ultimately singles out the United States as the main reason why everything is such a mess. And if you take Pondsmith’s statement that Cyberpunk as, “a warning” to heart, you could also say that the game is depicting hell, and that therefore its ok for the games satirical content to be a mix of earnest character stories similar to those in The Wticher III spliced with a semi-raunchy Grand Theft Auto clone, because that’s the point…right? The problem is that even the most charitable reading of “Cyberpunk 2077” begs the question as to whether its content is rooted in structural understanding, or is just the flailing of a Polish game developer stumbling with material it just so happened to get from a Black nerd in Canada. And what it boils down to is that even at its most blunt, the game ultimately isn’t enough of either to be a leap in gaming, a hateful screed, a coherent political statement or a complete disaster to be particularly notable.
Yeah, its buggy even on the most souped-up PC gaming builds, to say nothing of the issues plaguing players on PS4 and Xbox One. But there is at least a functional core in its combat system, and some of its story beats are affecting. The characterization, when it isn’t just a collection of pop-culture references and stereotypes uncritically adapted from their source material, is earnest and affecting. Judy is one of the main highlights, a lesbian Braindance (basically the technology from “Strange Days”) porn editor with a rough past who leads a group of cyber-enhanced sex workers to wrest control of a bordello away from its bosses, with the help of an ambitious and snotty ex-girlfriend. While the game otherwise utilizes sex work as way to give “edge” to the story, this at least gives a different perspective hinting at a greater narrative of labor power and organizing within Night City. There’s a character arc with Delamain, Night City’s AI cab service, which could serve as a metaphor for DID, self-individualization and even gender expression but is executed in a surprisingly even-handed and charming way (decades-old Portal reference aside). One demolition racing side quest has a butch trans woman named Claire with technical expertise to spare. Even your main story quest with Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves), now an engram inside your mind after the game’s introductory botched heist, has some resonant story bits. Silverhand is ultimately a snarky, egotistical asshole with a anti-corporate grudge that is both petty and chauvinistic, despite his rhetoric about corporate imperialism and corporations, “being after our souls”. No one in this game is a pure hero, and that’s kind of the point. As Judy says in the game, everyone in Night City is in their own little bubble, you just choose which one to reside in. But maybe you could be a force that brings everyone a little closer together, depending on how you go about the quests. While the space for story consequences is limited compared to much better CRPGs like “Fallout: New Vegas”, the efforts of the developers in crafting the play space you do have shines through sometime, and the ripples of your choices do show in the smaller spaces you walk through in-game.
But the positive qualities of the side quests and characterization only brings attention to how underbaked the wider game space is. You can’t join any of the gangs this world depicts, they’re either enemies or set-dressing. If they’re not built out of ethnic stereotypes, they’re thinly sketched. The Voodoo Boys, in this game a congregation of Black Haitian immigrants, leans more into the latter, and what you learn of them isn’t much. All you know about them is that they’re Climate Change refuges and that they don’t trust you (they didn’t even trust me, and I played as a tech-savvy Black woman. Maybe its because I played as a Corpo). Combat isn’t well-balanced. Some upgrades like the iconic Mantis Blades you’ve probably seen in the game’s first ever teaser-trailer are ultimately more trouble than they’re worth. They’re slow to use compared to the blades you can bilk from enemies. The same can be said for crafting weapons and gear. I barely bothered with the crafting system when a friend pointed out how useless it is and for the same reasons that plague the later cybernetic upgrades. Romance, while limited to just a few people, thankfully isn’t genital-locked as some claim it is, and there are reports of decent romance options for trans men and nonbinary players. But that’s undone by the developers taking a page from Bioware and making characters who you’d think would be at least bi…straight. That seems like a petty thing to whine about, especially in a game that is ultimately about as transgressive as a early 00s HBO TV show. But this all stems from the compromises this title makes between being a free-form simulation and an aggressively white, heterosexual narrative. As an action-adventure game, its janky but pretty. As a simulation, its noticeably inelegant if you’ve played any open-world title in the last 5 years. And as a role-playing game, its thin and streamlined in the same ways “The Wicher III: Wild Hunt” is, only not as compelling. “The Witcher III” at least leans on narrative strengths as focus as a game centering on Geralt’s development from its previous games. “Cyberpunk 2077” has all the signs of a developer going through growing pains as it tries to imitate the scope and breadth of massive Western AAA games. As a Cyberpunk vision its as wide as an ocean, but deep as a puddle.
This game’s contentious launch is yet another demonstration of the unsustainability of this development model. However disastrous the launch has been, the problem isn’t that CD Projekt Red is the one bad apple in a world of entertainment. “Cyberpunk 2077”, with all of its achievements, flaws and advertising boasting of its relationship with Pondsmith the RPG auteur, is a product of market demand. This studio is not leveraging its decades-long cache with gamers into a new IP out of mere geekiness, at least not entirely. No developer runs on passion alone. They wouldn’t have hinged their edginess on that image of a woman with a penis if they didn’t believe that hardcore gamers would latch onto it as a bullwark against the boogeyman of censorship (which they did). That the actual sexual content and objectification of the game is tame compared to even mainstream porn is besides the point. And the developer’s later attempts to cover up itself giving players very limited character customization where one can be a trans woman or a trans man shows an outfit that may not be fully committed to hatefulness even with the arch of how the game depicts disability and cybernetic enhancements. If the Wachowskis couldn’t wrest their anarchic visions and thoughtfulness from the machine they rail against, neither could a game studio in a country currently in the throes of reaction fully commit to their misguided vision, with the force of social media backlash against isuses like the game’s epilepsy-triggering moments prompting rapid hotfixes and patches since.
But a critical response to this video game on the basis of it being from Poland would only be superficially correct. While boycotts and divestment can be a good tactic, no one has yet to articulate how acts of reactive (anti)consumerism is supposed to stop facism on its own. This is because while the origins of CDPR as a game studio are noted, they are merely used as a bullet point into a wider narrative of the game not being “real Cyberpunk”, in isolation from other factors like labor practices in the gaming industry. If conflating oppression with the signified within fiction can cheapen one’s ability to grapple with it in reality, then so can wielding this title as a rhetorical bludgeon against its country of origin. There’s more to fighting fascism than treating it as a cultural pathology or a sign of a “fall from grace”, even if that same culture has produced a Cyberpunk title reluctant to embrace its source material with anything other than detached irony. And “saving” Cyberpunk isn’t going to be done by mocking the game’s bugs, boycotting the title, shaming reviewers for giving it high scores, or even shaming consumers for getting the game as a holiday present. However much one wishes to, one can’t simply dismiss “Cyberpunk 2077” or other works they don’t like like as not real Cyberpunk, however shallow it is. One can only respond to it as is, in part because of how much the world outpaces even game that have been in development for the better part of a decade.
If one’s response to this profoundly flawed game is limited to “ethical” consumerism, the Be A Better Cyberpunk itch.io campaign gave thousands of dollars for charity, and individual artists are still making Cyberpunk art in different environments than the Polish developers have. But while supporting individual artists can be a good thing, the need for agitation, if not a wider political program, is still there. Perhaps not everyone needs to be marching into the streets to enact change, but even with COVID-19 becoming a worldwide pandemic, everyone from the Black communities in the U.S. to public transit riders in Chile had breaking points, and there are developments there centered around rapidly accessible tech that are worth studying. To give a personal example, last year I helped organize a local Black-led car caravan with the cooperation of both local and national organizations, while choosing to say home due to the pandemic. I was one of the dozens of people moderating a livestream where we answered questions, flagged/deleted bigoted comments, and alerted people to police presence and traffic issues. We tried to make it easy for disabled, LGBT individuals to participate. Sign-language interpreters have been involved in some speaking engagements locally. People had car caravans right through neighborhoods considered to be LGBT hubs, while directly challenging them on matters of racial and income inequality. While done mostly through properitary software, we managed to make a big splash in an area of Southern California usually not known for Black revolt. And through that one car caravan with thousands of participants, we connected activists, neighbors and spectators alike to a wider, even international revolt around police brutality.
But movements that haven’t yet been contained or co-opted often fall apart or stagnate, and for multiple reasons. As much as one cries “The only thing to do is to begin”, there is a complicated, sometimes delicate you have to As I said before, the problems with organizing and activism in a age where tech is readily available even to people in poverty are more wide-ranging than simply prescribing people follow the words of Lenin, The Black Panthers or even Tiqquin, not that one shouldn’t read at least of the first two of these. Organization isn’t just agitation, its a process of persistent negotiation. While there are certainly persistent truths Not every retreat or failure can be attributed to liberalism, neither can the same be said of people declining to join org. Perhaps a local org just isn’t accessible or inclusive enough for people to want to join. What good is having a steadfast principle if your org alienates the marginalized within its ranks? The pandemic has negatively affected millions of people, so being able to pitch in for dues or do tasks is tougher. Software like Zoom has only just began to catching up to the needs of disabled people after years of criticism. As tech gets more and more intertwined with organizing and activism, we’ll work with the physical limits of the software and hardware we depend on.
On dealing with the human side of the fight, there is a desire towards totalizing narratives or representation in order to diagnose how to organize around social issues, which as observed before by Gramsci isn’t neutral and can even reinforce opprression as opposed to conquering it. There is a general narrative of a need for another hero or leader to get us out of this messy world, with the Democratic Socialists of America in particular rallying around Bernie Sanders, and with online personalities like the hosts of Chapo Trap House and The Young Turks rallying around him almost as if he the last hope for a civilized world. Symbolism may be important for uniting people, but that symbol could become a movement’s tombstone. This is why TERFism, springing from observations and beliefs around gendered oppression in the 1960s and 70s by radical feminists, would become just another prop for the right in overturning social welfare reforms since the 1980s.
Likewise with Bernie Sanders, even a coursory glance at his platform and records show that in some ways he so much a radical as he is a better option for an American populace. But this option has to come at the expense of non-Americans. After all, he tried to match Joe Biden on being an anti-China hawk, too. He has tweeted in support of Juan Guaido, then the interim self-declared President of Venezuela after an attempted coup which has further victimized citizens of a country under duress from sanctions. Codification is not the same as understanding the world or being correct, especially if that understanding stops at the border. Sciences have gone through different challenges and crisises, from the Crisis of Induction being invoked by the incidents like the discovery of Black Swans contrary to the previous oberservation of there being White Swans, to the current Replication Crisis where studies made popular by the media turn out to be unsupported,
Many people incorrectly assume that, due to the “p<.05” threshold for statistical significance, only 5% of discoveries will prove to be errors. However, 15 years ago, physician John Ioannidis pointed to some fallacies in that assumption, arguing that false discoveries made up the majority of the published literature. Replication efforts are confirming that the false discovery rate is much higher than 5%.
Awareness about the replication crisis appears to be promoting better behavior among scientists. Twenty years ago, the cycle for publication was basically complete after a scientist convinced three reviewers and an editor that the work was sound. Yes, the published research would become part of the literature, and therefore open to review – but that was a slow-moving process.
Today, the stakes have been raised for researchers. They know that there’s the possibility that their study might be reviewed by thousands of opinionated commenters on the internet or by a high-profile group like the Reproducibility Project. Some journals now require scientists to make their data and computer code available, which makes it likelier that others will catch errors in their work. What’s more, some scientists can now “preregister” their hypotheses before starting their study – the equivalent of calling your shot before you take it.
If actual scientists have to scrutinize their own findings if they are serious about their work, so must our core assumptions around organizing, oppression and even the idea of morality based on one’s oppression be tested. There will be more fierce arguments and splits than there are victories. We may even need to change our idea of what a victory is, just as Neo has to change his perspective from being The One to making a sacrifice to mediate the war between man and machine.
Cyberpunk on its basic level is built on observations of not just pop culture but also the world around its creators. The creative outputs of Pondsmith, Otomo, Tuskimoto and the Wachowskis highlight the challenges of doing doing this, but there are people out here right now making some of their rebellion come to life, with a social structure and technology beyond their wildest nightmares. Many came to be deeply involved in organizing in the U.S. alone in response to Trump, but for others the fight has been going on for much longer and in areas of the world not highlighted or argued over on social media. Cyberpunk can’t be saved from itself, no matter how aggressively we tastemake away art that doesn’t satisfy us. The world has outpaced it in multiple ways, so much that new art seems retro at most and regressive at least. But just because the genre moves backward doesn’t mean one has to follow. If Cyberpunks mean it when they say they are more revolutionary and punk than CDPR could ever dream of becoming, surely there is no better time to prove it than during the rise of fascism. Biden may have elected, Brexit may have finally gone through, the Bolivian coup reversed and the oil industry crashing, but its not over yet. Charles Stross publically admitted to being outpaced by Snowden’s whistleblowing, but he is still writing and speaking up about different issues. Right now he, along with millions of people, are asking questions about what’s next in the U.S. after the attempted coup on January 6th,
Are the Trumpists going to split and form a new party? Or are the Republicans going to split, many of them deserting to the Democrat coalition, and leave the rump party to the neo-Nazis? Or something else?
Even Stross knows that his writing can only examine so much of a rapidly changing world. Cyberpunk has become old-school. Perhaps now is the time to catch up with the rest of the world and change it.
All work on this blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, including this essay. Thank you for reading! I hope you learned something from it.