Sunday, May 3, 2009

Idoru




by William Gibson

Somewhere down the line, the concept of difference transforms into that of diversity. What does this have to do with the digital bridge which technology erects between disparate communities and cultures? How can we relate this to the elimination of an overarching 20th century global economic, by economic I mean political, binary? As the oppositional binary of capitalism and communism grows increasingly obsolete, in fact, as the very concept becomes nothing more than fuzzy history, we arrive at a point in which late-stage capitalism no longer becomes a term of finality – it is not ending. Instead, late-stage capitalism stands as a developmental maturity. A global hegemony, the American empire of capitalist dominance, gives way to a global homogeny. 1996’s “Idoru” is science fiction writer William Gibson’s follow-up to “Virtual Light,” and it offers a further sophistication of his speculations on collision – between humanity and technology, and between cultures as the gap decreases.

The novel follows two parallel courses. In the first, we see Colin Laney, a quantitative analyst. He “…was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. Laney’s concentration-deficit, too slight to register on some scales, made him a natural channel-zapper, shifting from program to program, from database to database, from platform to platform, in a way that was, well, intuitive… Laney was the equivalent of a dowser, a cybernetic water-witch.” By watching this topography of transactions and statements, Laney is able to plot nodal points - the digital shape identity assumes within an information mainframe. Laney is an employee of Slitscan, a mature manifestation of the celebrity machine fueled by tabloids, Entertainment Tonight, and People magazine. After being fired following a fiasco involving the suicide of a rock musician’s mistress, Laney takes a job in a Tokyo reconfigured by nanotechnology. There, he pursues the nodal points accumulating around Rez, one half of the international rock group, Lo/Rez. Rez has announced he will be marrying Rei, the fabulously famously Japanese idoru, who also happens to be an entirely virtual celebrity - the wet dream of a streaming information. Rez’s management is afraid this is a marketing disaster and hires Laney to uncover any possible conspiracies that might be behind the rock star’s bewildering behavior.

“Idoru”s second major plot line is also a mediation on celebrity, this time focusing on the role fame plays for the fans. Is celebrity perpetuated by a faceless fan base, or by media conglomerates such as Slitscan? The book follows Chia Pet McKenzie, a precocious fourteen-year old member of the Seattle branch of the Lo/Rez fan club. She is sent to Tokyo by her chapter to investigate whether, as one member says, Rei, “…this dickless whore, the disembodied, has contrived to ensnare his soul.” Ok. The celebrity, for Gibson, is an individual, no, an entity, posed on the post-human brink – a being on the vanguard of transition, perhaps even transcendence. While Angie in the earlier novel, “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” provided an event horizon for technology and humanity within the collision site of the celebrity, in “Idoru,” Gibson has expanded this interstice to include cross-cultural decompartmentalization.

Rez exists somewhere beyond specificity – cultural, spatial, ethnic, even temporal. In Seattle, “the wall opposite Chia’s bed was decorated with a six-by-six laser blowup of ‘Lo Rez Skyline,’ their first album… it was still her favorite, and not just, as her mother suggested, because they all still looked so young.” Rez’s eventual communion with the virtual idoru, Rei, is almost inevitable, as the rock star already perches on the cusp of post-humanity. He exists forever – in a place outside of time, a point of image. At the novel’s climax, when Rez bursts into the love hotel room where Chia is on the verge of being assaulted by the Russian mafia or Kombinant, she has difficulty recognizing him. Even though she identified his trademark green eye, “…it took a second before she recognized him.” Or rather, this physical Rez is not a post-human entity, but Rez’s image, his celebrity, is post-human. He is not the rock star, that is, the media conception of a rock star, but “…a man who looked like Rez… except he looked thicker, somehow, his cheeks unhallowed.” Rez, the celebrity, only actually exists on the screen, within a mediated image. When Chia sees his public announcement following the false rumors of his death, “…he looked thinner, though; someone had tweaked it.” We should also note that this climax, the moment in each Gibson novel where the parallel narratives converge, culminates a business transaction between Rez and the Russian mafia.

Celebrity is not a solid state, a physical weight, but “…a subtle fluid, a universal element, like the phlogiston of the ancients, something spread evenly at creation through all the universe, but prone now to accrete, under specific conditions, around certain individuals and their careers.” Kathy Torrance, Laney’s former boss at Slitscan, loathes Rez because he is, she thinks, an exception to her theory of celebrity. As we see by the novel’s close though, Rez isn’t really an exception. The thing is, Rez isn’t is so much an individual around whom the “subtle fluid” or celebrity pools, no, Rez is that very fluid. Materiality, then, has lost its currency. Humanity has reached a boiling point, not a pressure point, but a flux of state – the movement from a solid to a liquid society. Even architecture has gained a fluidity; as Laney rests in his Tokyo apartment, he “…closed his eyes, not wanting to see the new buildings. But they were still there, in the darkness and the light behind his lids. And as he watched, they slid apart, deliquesced, and trickled away, down into the mazes of an older city.” This new architecture, that is, this very newness, is a primarily a fluid movement.

This agrees with the idea that we have entered a period where the Hegelian notion of History, or of the linearity of History, has been replaced. By what, though? In its place is something owing a great deal to Debord’s, or McLuhan’s, conception of spectacle. Media has transplanted History. Laney observes that “it was impossible to work at Slitscan without a sense of participating in history, or else in what Kathy Torrance would argue has replaced history.” Celebrity is different than the celebrity. It is an event and not a person. It is a product, or simply the act of the consumption.

In “Idoru,” Gibson continues to refine his muscular, visionary prose, sprinkled with traces of Raymond Chandler, William S Burroughs and JG Ballard. Like the recently deceased Ballard, Gibson has an aptitude to manifest the abstract as image. The image is in service of a greater concept. Look at how he describes Slitscan’s audience, a sprawling entity who, it could be argued, constitutes the real body of celebrity, despite the audience’s own anonymity. According to Kathy Torrance, then, Slitscan’s audience might be “…best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally, I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato that lives by itself, in the dark, in a doublewide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and its sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth …no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.” There is an amazing coherence of grotesquery and abstraction here! This passage also illustrates Gibson’s talent for inserting longer conceptual passages into his tight, and for all intents and purposes, traditional narratives. This gift, perhaps, comes out of the necessity in science fiction for in story exposition concerning imaginary histories and technologies. Gibson reassigns this exposition in service of his cultural speculativism to great effect; a reminder that in addition to excelling as a novelist of ideas, he is also a consummate craftsmen.

Earlier, I mentioned a point of cultural collision. Perhaps collapse would be a more apt term, but not in the sense of a degradation, but of a folding inward- a compression. The future moment of Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, which is ultimately the contemporary moment of our present, is a sphere or a encirclement, rather than a line or a progression. When we are first introduced to Chia, she speculates that “…her mother’s perception of time differed from her own in radical and mysterious ways. Not just in the way that a month, to Chia’s mother, was not a very long time, but in the way that her mother’s “now” was such a narrow and literal thing. News-governed …Cable-fed. A present honed to whatever very instant of a helicopter traffic report. Chia’s “now” was digital, effortlessly elastic, instant recall supported by global systems she’d never have to bother comprehending.” Chia’s temporal sense is global, or rather, expansive, while her mother’s is local, fixed.

Rez is a perfect metaphor for this incipient compression, which is cross-cultural as well as temporal. Rez, in live footage of his band, Lo/Rez, espouses a Sino-Celtic mysticism. Laney wonders “…how there can be ‘Sino-Celtic mysticism’ when the Chinese and the Celts don’t have any shared history?” Arleigh McCrae, who works for Lo/Rez’s management, explains, “Because Rez himself is half Chinese and half Irish. And if there’s one thing he is serious about… It’s Rez.” Which isn’t ultimately a judgment of Rez’s egotism. Rather, it is an apt observation of the reconfiguration of cultural significants. While the Chinese and the Celts may have developed independently, the fact that the global sphere has compressed to a commonality of both economics and information creates a connection. When Chia arrives at the apartment of Mitsuko Mimura, a Tokyo member of Rez’s fan club, she finds “Mitsuko had the same poster on her wall, the original cover shot from the Dog Soup album.” It is the commercial environment, for which celebrity and branding is the life-fluid that bridges this new global homogeny.

We must not lose sight of the significance in Rez and Rei, the idoru, building their island on the outskirts of a digital construct of Kowloon, the Walled City, a decriminalized urban zone that once existed outside of Hong Kong, as well as outside the jurisdiction of any nation. The Bridge in Gibson’s previous novel, “Virtual Light,” and the digital reimagining of the Walled City in “Idoru” present two possibilities for location in a delocalized future of cultural integration and dispersal.

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