Tuesday, May 19, 2009
All Tomorrow's Parties
by William Gibson
William Gibson writes books that course with living religious patterns. An incipience of digital awakening, these are spiritual books. But William Gibson doesn’t write about intrusion or technological otherness, instead, this emergence is one of humanity as the maker of signs – man allowing signifiers and significants, and therefore establishing deep and total changes in the greater part of itself. “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the final book in Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, was published in 1999, on the cusp of the millennium and in the midst of widespread millennial fear. It is a book about break-throughs. It is a book about those changes which can’t be categorized numerically or through linearity, but only through a more immersive, almost fractal, nodality. What does that mean? Well, Gibson has gone through great pains to articulate this over the course of the Bridge trilogy. There is a humanism to Gibson’s social and technological progress, since technology remains intrinsically human for him, despite its variations and preponderancies. Which perhaps goes a long way towards explaining just how organic Gibson’s writing has become over the course of the Bridge trilogy, or even has always been, underneath all the hard edges and neon sheen of the early Burning Chrome stories and the Sprawl trilogy.
Technology, Gibson seems to be telling us, is human, but what about information? How does information saturation change a person, and what effect does it have on society? In “Neuromancer,” Gibson’s first novel, the sky signifies a television tuned to dead feedback – to the absence of information and its abundance. In the first chapter of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Yamazaki, the existential sociologist who appears in all three Bridge novels, stands outside a cardboard shanty town, “…staring up at the towers of Shinjuku, the walls of animated light, sign and signifier twisting toward the sky in the unending ritual of commerce, of desire.” Here we see the dissonance, the information-rich abrasion of “Neuromancer”s television feedback, transformed into a thing of value, of market value. The deadpan gangsters and hackers of the Sprawl trilogy exist amidst the tropics of information, for the most part stoic and impassive. The characters of the Bridge trilogy, though, interact to a greater extent with this jungle, they parse significance from the density.
In ‘Idoru,’ we were introduced to Colin Laney, a quantatative analyst injected with an experimental drug, 5-SB, in his youth at a state orphanage. The drug facilitates a nodal awareness. A side effect, or perhaps a maturation of this data sensitivity, is a psychotic celebrity fixation. Laney becomes obsessed with Cody Harwood, a powerful ‘non-celebrity’ who “…leaves a sort of negative trace; you have to infer everything from the way he’s not there…” As Laney investigates further, “..it had begun to become apparent that this was a locus of nodal points, a sort of meta-node…” 5-SB has made Laney sensitive to nodal activity, while Harwood is himself a nodal point.
Laney has, since ‘Idoru,’ quit his job working for the pop band, Lo/Rez, and has retreated, on the verge of death. into a labyrinth of cardboard cartons inhabited by derelicts and outsiders. Yamazaki notices the fragility of the cardboard walls, how if “One of them is serrated; he could easily cut his way out through the wall. Yet the psychological space is powerful, very powerful, and overwhelms him. He feels very far from Shinjuku, Tokyo, from anything.” Yamazaki has entered another city whose boundary and reach refutes the geographical realities of its location. An interstitial community contracts and expands according to its significance, not its area.
The book returns to the Bridge community of “Virtual Light,” and further investigates the reality of interstitial space. This cardboard community is an aggressive non-space, but it is also a microcosm of the Bridge on which the bulk of the novel’s action occurs. Within these hovels, “…it is as though their inhabitants are rendered invisible in the transaction that allows such structures to exist in the context of the station.” Yamazaki looks over the dwelling place of one of Laney’s neighbors, an old man who spends his days assembling model kits of anime mecha and exoskeletons, and thinks “there are too many objects here, in this tiny space. Towels and blankets and cooking pots on cardboard shelves. Books. A small television.” Just as the old man constructs miniature models of incredibly massive robots and monsters, the cardboard city itself is a miniature of other interstitial spaces, like the Bridge or Kowloon, the Walled City. The very vulnerability of the space suggests the transience not just of Laney’s room, but also of Skinner’s room on the Bridge in “Virtual Light,” and by affiliation, all interstitial spaces. That is, after all, in their very natures.
Chevette returns to the Bridge. She stands in front of the junkyard trolley that ascends to the makeshift she shared with Skinner, and “…a feeling that she can’t name comes like something she has always known, and she has no interest in climbing farther, because she knows now that the home she remembers is no longer there. Only its shell, humming in the wind, where once she lay wrapped in blankets, smelling machinist’s grease and coffee and fresh-cut wood.” Space echoes space, especially in its absence. Chevette’s friend Tessa explains the history of Kowloon the Walled City to her, “…how there’d actually been this place, by Hong Kong, but it had been torn down before Hong Kong went back to being part of China. And then these crazy net people had built their own version of it, like a big communal website, and they’d turned it inside out, vanished in there.” This communal digital space, then, privileges memory as location. The physical lack of a thing is, in the presence of memory and cognition, not the lack of its reality.
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” deals with the coming apocalypse – the one that’s always coming, the one last seen in 1911, which was brought into motion when “Madame Currie’s husband was run over by a horse-drawn wagon, in Paris, in 1906.” This is not an emergent destruction though, instead there is an indistinct, but very vital Something shifting. An almost ecstatic change.
The novel culminates in a non-localized moment. The crux of the action occurs on the Bridge, but the change, the shift in reference and significance, occurs in a pan-localized diversity. This change has something to do with the Nanofax hubs that Harwood has set up globally in each Lucky Dragons location. The Nanofax “…offers a technology that digitally reproduces objects, physically, at a distance. Within certain rather large limitations, of course. A child’s doll, placed in a Lucky Dragon Nanofax unit in London, will be reproduced in the Lucky Dragon Nanofax unit in New York…” Here, again, we see the growing irrelevance of old concepts of authenticity as the copy becomes the thing.
Boomzilla, a young boy living on the Bridge, is in a Lucky Dragon convenience store when this change or shift surfaces. The Nanofax “…hatch turns green, and the hatch slides up and out crawls, unfolds sort of, this butt-naked girl, black hair, maybe Chinese, maybe Japanese, something [Rei Toei, the idoru]... when he sees her walk past the screens there, he sees her on every last screen, walking out of every Lucky Dragon in the world, wearing that same smile.” Technology here facilitates a realization within the physical plane of something like Foucault’s panopticon or Emerson’s totalizing eye – a fully immersed being engaged in a nonlinear acceptance of information. Progress here is no longer fixed to place – it asserts a field instead of a line. Many, if not all, of Gibson’s novels end with an image, that is, a portent, of emergence. No, better yet, of transcendence. In the Sprawl trilogy, information itself gains cognition and the centralization of humans as signifying beings is dispersed as contact is made with an alien intelligence – with a hereto before unknown series of signs!
The Bridge trilogy ends with a more humanistic, and perhaps more viably pervasive transcendence. To understand the sophistication of this change, we need to look at Gibson’s concept of an interstitial space. The Bridge is the most ready example in the novel, as is the digital Kowloon the Walled City, and even the Shinjuku cardboard city. The Bridge is, as Harwood explains, an autonomous zone, “…a number of major cities have these autonomous zones…it’s what we have now instead of bohemias… alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the previous two centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R & D, exploring alternative societal strategies.” When Chevette returns to the Bridge, she finds a Lucky Dragon convenience store looming at its entrance, on the borderland, a harbinger of a future Disneyification. What happened to bohemia? “ We started picking them before they could ripen.” Rei Toei’s replication at the Lucky Dragon Nanofaxes allows a sea change – that is, the commodification Lucky Dragon exemplifies is undeniable. It is not a thing to be ignored or destroyed, but utilized. Another word for functionality can be subversion.
“Every object of desire,” we are told, “ is a found object.” The object is an economic currency, as is desire. The tools of commodification are not going away any time soon, but they can be utilized for new goals. This is exactly what the Flarf poets are currently accomplishing in their consciously “bad” writing and the appropriation of information’s residue – its junk and filth. If bohemias represented a refusal of a societal predominance and a retreat into esotericism, the future heralded by Rei Toei’s replication is a diversification, an acceptance of a glorious panopticon.
Gibson’s Bridge trilogy ends in apocalypse. The bridge community actually bursts into flames. But old signifiers must be reinvented. Remember, “…history in the older sense was an historical concept. History in the older sense was narrative, stories we told ourselves about where we’d come from and what it had been like, and those narratives were revised by each new generation, and indeed always had been. History was plastic, was a matter of interpretation. The digital had not so much changed that as made it too obvious to ignore. History was stored data, subject to manipulation and interpretation… It was that shape comprised of each narrative, every version…” Gibson, then, shows us a diversity that will facilitate a greater unity. Not some Disney hell of “It’s a Small World,” but a digital panopticon of information regarding itself. Of us becoming plastic, of our species becoming a solid which acts like a liquid, or vice versa. A great surge. An indefinable ecstasy. Change. And it’s always happening. Always will.