Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pattern Recognition

by William Gibson

The problem isn’t one of technique. It isn’t a question of chops – as if I have ever indicated anywhere on this blog that it is. Is there even a problem here? Or, as I prefer to ask, what is going on here?

William Gibson, whose body of work I’ve been obsessively making my way through over the past couple months, is a consummate craftsman, skilled in both sentence-level compression and narrative propulsion. Through a collection of early short fiction, six solo novels and one collaborative novel, Gibson has, if anything, further honed his craft to a fierce acumen. 2003’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ is, on a purely technical level, one of his most impressive, if not his most impressive, book to date. Along with Don DeLillo, he is the master of the Noun-less sentence. At his best, Gibson employs this mastery of the taut increment to present not a mirror to the world, but a sparseness whose ambiguity, whose immensity, can only be figured as fractal. His sentences are pared down so that they cut. Hard. This edge, or as Gibson might write it, Edge, has often hidden a romantic humanism, I’d even go so far as to say sentimentalism, that stands at the core of Gibson’s novels. In this sense, he can again be compared with DeLillo. How does one negotiate the astounding depth of perception and postmodern contemporneity of these two authors with this emotional conservatism? This is both what makes the work of both writers so inviting, and the point on which I find some issue. But lets be fair and first approach ‘Pattern Recognition’ from a more general, encompassing position. Let’s start.

Gibson’s novels always operate as a series of doors. They fashion metaphors for the present out of technology, out of architectural theory, and out of globalization. But let’s not resort to positioning these novels as doorways to ‘x’ or ‘z.’ No, that smacks far too much of some hoary notion of fiction as a window onto a world. Let’s instead think of the doors themselves. A book, specifically a work of science fiction like this, is liminal in nature. Gibson’s nodal points. A speculative linguistics?

‘Pattern Recognition,’ whose titular initials could aptly stand for PR, follows Cayce (pronounced, tellingly, ‘Case’) Pollard, who Cayce suffers, or benefits, from an allergy to corporate branding and logos. She uses her condition to operate as a ‘coolhunter;’ Cayce hunts out emerging trends and commodifies them. She is hired by Hubertus Bigend, an incredibly wealthy marketing mogul, to track down the maker of the Footage. She is also a devotee of a clandestine internet site, Fetish: Footage: Forum that follows this Footage with a form of reformatted spiritualism. She is one of “…perhaps twenty regular posters on F: F: F:, and [there are] some much larger and uncounted number of lurkers.” It is a sort of church without a denomination.

The Footage itself, and the forum that has grown around it, is a sort of unbranded Brand – a new type of global product. That is, it is the objectless thing; the product existing as a meme with no viable profit-based outlet. As Cayce visits the F: F: F site, “…there are three people in Chat, but there’s no way of know exactly who until you are in there, and the chat room she finds not so comforting. It’s strange even with friends, like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about fifteen feet. The hectic speed and the brevity of the lines in the thread, plus the feeling that everyone is talking at once, at counter-purposes, deter her.” These footageheads form a community based upon the antithesis of community. No, perhaps they are revitalizing the actualities of community – reformatting it beyond a pre-9/11 capitalist geography. I am reminded of Bataille’s constellations of the thing and of intimacy. In Bataille, the attempt to break free of objectness instead reinforces the object, while somehow intimating the sacred. The nature of the forum is a contradictory thing, it is a confusing thing. That is because it is a new thing. What would Gibson think of that?

In this shock of the new lies the vitality of Gibson’s book. ‘ Pattern Recognition’ feels to me like one of the most ‘true’ post-9/11 novels yet written. Again, Gibson and DeLillo seem to be engaged in a shadow dance. Interesting, the lag time seems to be decreasing as we move into our new century. Since the eighties, these two writers have ghosted each other, intentionally or not, across a divide which could only be crossed by such prescient thinkers as Larry McCaffery, editor of the brilliant cyberpunk study, “Storming the Reality Studio.’ Yet the delay seems to have been rectified, as if a Wi-Fi connection has suddenly been repaired. DeLillo’s 2007 novel, ‘Falling Man,’ seems to me the post-9/11 novel in which a comparison with Gibson’s would bear the most fruit. Furthermore, it might be worth investigating at some point in the future the confluences between DeLillo’s most recent work, ‘Cosmopolis’ and ‘Falling Man,’ and Gibson’s, this novel under discussion and the later ‘Spook Country.’ ‘Cosmopolis’ in particular occupies much of the same space as this novel.

Let’s zoom in, once more, on Gibson. As a post-9/11 novel, ‘Pattern Recognition,’ has something of a Janus gaze. On the one hand, Gibson is as always an incredibly progressive, or at the least perceptive, writer. His concept of the ‘mirror-world’ succinctly paraphrases the porous nature of global culture; the ‘not-quite’ monoculture of simulacra and approximation – Xeroxes of Xeroxes which, by default, are both real. Cayce takes stock of a London apartment, and indicates the intricacies of “Mirror-world. The plugs on the appliances. are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.” Elsewhere, this is explained by saying a place is ‘-really, not –really like…X.” What we are arriving at is a sophisticated speculative fiction; a refinement or revision of the authenticity and pathos of simulacra suggested by ‘Neuromancer’s famous first line.

Here we see “… an imitation more real somehow than that which is emulates.” Not a far cry off from that ‘Neuromancer’ dead-television sky, is it? Cayce perceives this effect in terms of fashion and corporate branding. She recoils upon sight of the newest Tommy Hilfiger line at a Harvey Nichols: “This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row… Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.” Ah, but perhaps Cayce (Gibson?) is making a misstep here. Is authenticity a litmus of ‘rightness?’ Is it ethically sound to be authentic? I would say that authenticity, in the contemporary, is no judgment of moral or aesthetic standing. Authentic is not qualitative. It is barely descriptive! Perhaps this is that unfortunate romantic humanism of Gibson cropping up again? That is, it’s not so much that I’m criticizing the romantic, as I am the notion of a humanism, when instead the focus might be better lent to notions of the post-human, even if only as an ideal.

I may, of course, be somewhat off the mark. Gibson does is in many ways a wonderful speculator upon the dimensions of the post-human – either through the transcendence of the Neuromancer/Wintermute AI in the Sprawl trilogy, or through his speculations upon nanotechnology and the nature of Idoru in the Bridge trilogy. So perhaps I should revise my early statements. Maybe what I actually do take issue with is his dependence upon the romantic. The concept of the new is of course a romantic notion.

One point that I agree with Gibson on is that we face the end, no, more accurately the clearing of Hegelian historicity. Which is strange, as in another sense I feel that Gibson’s observations support a Hegelian, or perhaps Bataille-informed, concept of transcendence, that is, of an experiential limit-break, of a moving beyond self-based boundaries. It could be argued that Gibson speaks through Hubertus Bigend intermittently throughout the book. The marketing mogul, it must be mentioned, bears a strong resemblance to ‘Count Zero’s Virek, just as Cayce’s mission to discover the maker of an existential piece of artwork in ‘Pattern Recognition’ mirrors Marly’s similar project in ‘Count Zero.’ And doesn’t Cayce, who may be named after the slumbering prophet Edgar Cayce, actually figure as a feminine mirror of ‘Neuromancer’s protagonist, the console cowboy Case? More mirror-worlds?

Bigend, like ‘Count Zero’s Virek, is prone to socio-cultural exposition, as he suggests that “…we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile.. We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.” It is in this sense that Gibson posits a genuinely new speculative fiction.

What I was, in my way, attempting to convey with my personal concept of Speculative Linguistics, as discussed in my post on Ben Marcus’ ‘Notable American Woman,’ is further explored here in ‘Pattern Recognition.’ Gibson, in the words of Hubertus Bigend, put it better than I could ever hope to. Speculative Fiction is no longer the province of galactic world building, but of an interrogation of the futures of the present, that is, of the stratifications of the present. There is no ‘present:’ there are presents. Though Gibson’s novel does not take place in a temporal future, it certainly exists in a cultural or social future. Semiotics, language itself, is the time-machine.

And here is where I make a possible break from William Gibson and this novel, despite how undeniably fine of a book it is. Cayce refers, early on, to a particular thread on the F: F: F board. She indicates, “…here is Parkaboy railing on about Mama Anarchia’s tendency to quote Baudrillard and the other Frenchmen who annoy him so deeply…” Later on, we learn that the F: F: F poster, Mama Anarchia, is actually Dorotea, the chief antagonist of the novel. One of Dorotea’s posts asks Cayce and the others, “Do you know nothing of narratology? Where is Derridean “play” and excessiveness? Foucaldian limit-attitude? Lytardian language-games? Lacanian Imaginaries? Where is the commitment to praxis, positioning Jamesonian nostalgia, and despair – as well as Habermasian fears of irrationalism – as panic discourses signaling the defeat of Enlightenment hegemony over cultural theory? But no: discourse on this site are hopelessly retrograde.” Positioning this post as the opinion, of the book’s antagonist also puts her sentiment under trial. I understand Gibson is suggesting the complicities of 20th century intellectual theory with the debris and destruction of that bad Modernisms, bad Post-modernisms. He does have a point, I admit. The partnership of Bigend and Russian pseudo-kingpin Voltov also indicates a sea-change in the post-9/11 world. But I fear that Gibson’s skepticism of ‘those annoying French philosophers’ is something of a misstep.

After all, the book supposes that the Footage is a new methodology. It’s the vanguard of a new means of communication, completely new avenues of expression – but the new expression is in danger of looking a lot like the old expression. Cayce, when finally confronted with the heraldic ‘maker’ of the Footage, asks “But does it end?” Stella, the maker’s twin sister replies, “You mean, is linear narrative?” And that’s the snag. For me at least. Gibson is so gifted as positing these potentialities for our future and, yes, ultimately for our present! Therefore, it seems retrogressive for Gibson to cling so fervently to linearity, to the point of mocking alternatives. The future Gibson suggests is one that starts, but does not necessarily end. One of the flaws of ‘Pattern Recognition,’ for me, was that these patterns mirror those old patterns a little too closely. The book wraps up a little too neatly. Gibson is, after all, a consummate storyteller. He is a great storyteller, and a great novelist. But he is also a great writer of ideas, and sometimes I wish he would not stick so adamantly to the tidy resolutions and symmetrical, far-to-neat conclusions that mar most, if not all, of his novels. There are lessons Gibson can still learn from older writers who have inspired him, like Ballard and Burroughs. I invite, of course, the comments and opinions of any one reading this, as I do believe William Gibson is a great novelist, and that this is a powerful and incisive novel.

The novel’s start is in the book, but as it presses out into discourse, as it must, there is no longer a need for neat resolutions or any ending at all. The internet is modular, expansive, a constructive agent like Gibson’s Legos, and it does not end.

NEXT: Georges Bataille's Divine Filth

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