deathmetal technomutant morphing
or why i think john leonard is a cyber-weenie

lance olsen
© 1994 alt-x



Reading John Leonard's smug power-slam against cyberpunk in The Nation (15 November 1993) is a little like stumbling into this windowless steel-doored below-ground cement cubicle aswarm with radioactive deathmetal technomutant morphing killer bees. You just don't know which ones to start slapping at first. But I'll do what I can. "Can we talk?" Leonard launches his essay. Sure we can, John. Meat to meat. Cyberdeck to Olivetti. Let me just get on my fire-retardant corrosion-resistant nickel-base alloy robo-enhanced methyl isocyanate flamethrower here, and I'll be right with you.


You say cyberpunks (except, you hasten to add, Pat Cadigan) are "a tight bunch of Wild Boys, anyway--Bruce Sterling, Larry McCaffery, John Shirley, Sam Delany, Lewis Shiner, Marc Laidlaw, Rudy Rucker--so white and middle class that maybe hacking is a form of suburban flight." I'm sure Samuel Delany, a premiere innovative African American writer, would love to learn he's really just a paleface in blackface. Nice play, John. And I'll just bet ya someone like Kathy Acker, whose crazed cybernovel Empire of the Senseless is about the part-black android Abhor, would get a real kick outta discovering she's a bourgeois horsewife fleeing the nitty-gritty grody stuff in life. Ditto for such diverse white suburban headbangers as the first c-p of them all, Mary Shelley, or Misha, Joan Gordon, Takayuki Tatsumi, Patti Smith, Veronica Hollinger, Vivian Sobchack, Laurie Anderson, and, of course, Donna Haraway whose "Cyborg Manifesto," a deconstruction of easy dualisms employed by much socialist and feminist thought, has, I'm sure you'll agree, gone farther than just about any other critifiction to perpetuate the midde-class suburban white male cause. And, gee, John, while we're at it, remind me again: what exactly's so bad about being white, male, or bourgeois? Being, not to put too fine a point on it, kinda like you?

Next you turn around and claim that the only thing those suburbanites write about is "one big Third World refugee black market fire sale." Time out. First you imply it's somehow morally offensive to live in suburbia, right? Then you imply it's somehow morally offensive to write about rotten cities? Did I miss something? (I mean, besides the fact that with the advent of modems, faxes, acid rain, and satellite dishes such easy binaries as urban/suburban, city/country, don't hold as much ethylene glycol as they once did?) Whatever.

But you're right: lots of cyberlit's about one sprawl or another. In part, this narrative device works as warning: our future will put one of Bosch's nightmares to shame if we're not careful. In part, too, those sprawls are less about tomorrow than today, as a quick drive(-by) through East L.A. will italicize. Cyberlit's metaphorized and defamiliarized version of the present that shows us how and why we live, raises the question whether that's what we'd like to be doing, then suggests that if we don't maybe we should start rethinking ourselves and situation. Paradoxically, cyberlit also works as a celebration of designer drugs, brain implants, virtual porn. After all, the future could always be a whole lot worse than that. It could always be boring. Pat Robertson could be President. Your facile putdown of c-p could be the only voice we hear.

Speaking of putdowns, you take deep delight in quoting Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's infamous "gleeful putdown of the whole genre" which highlights the formulaic structure of much cyberlit. Only thing is, you kinda forget those other ten pages of his essay ("Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism") in which he also celebrates c-p, complexly explores it, and ultimately problematizes it. You also kinda forget that, as structuralists have known for thirty years, any genre from fairy tale to flash fiction can be reduced to its basic algebra--a truism that doesn't by any means fault the genre under study.

You also kinda forget that most c-ps are a whole lot less interested in plot than content. Their work tends to explore stupendously important topics that trad-lit hasn't even dreamed of yet (anarchist hacker networks, cryogenics, surveillance satellites, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, electronic freedom, smart drugs, street tech, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, techno angst, decentralization of governments, etc.) while raising such fundamental questions as: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE DEAD OR ALIVE? WHERE DO I END AND THE UNIVERSE BEGIN? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?

C-p's no more than fashion statement? "How nice to be able to pretend to your disgruntled students that you're a swinger." "And, without ever risking originality by engaging artifacts of genius, to persuade the tenure committee that you wear with flair the latest cut in brand-name mystagogic zoot suits. . . . Every time I hear another mention of Bataille's 'paradigmatic tropes of sacrificial excess and bodily affirmation,' I reach for my harmonica." I mean, really John. Slobber is forming upon my lips.

I'm not word-processing a defense of all cyberlit. Spare me. Like everything else in the cosmos, some of it's a kick in the reptilian complex (Burroughs, Ballard, DeLillo), and some of it's weak, thin, and/or rushed (Bester, Brunner, Dick). So what's new?

Only attacking something as fashionable just because it's new is the oldest tautological trick in the hypertext. Critics did it in the Twenties with such incomprehensible hipsters as Eliot and Joyce; in the Fifties with that young upstart Beckett; in the Sixties and Seventies with the king of pomo swing, Pynchon. Can New Crypticism sometimes be silly? Sure. (By the way, you elide poststructuralists like Foucault, Barthes, and Lacan with c-ps, putting all your eggs into one basket and then steam-rolling it.) But to lump the likes of Lyotard, Jameson, and Debord together, then dismiss them with an ironic sneeze, is nothing if not plain theoretical illiteracy. A-and when you start cranking up those questions like "what happened to Doris Lessing and Kobo Abe, Italo Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, Borges and Nabokov . . . ?" (I'm writing a book on V.N, so settle down), or "when was this meeting where they voted out existential humanism, and voted in pomo?", or "have any of these people . . . ever read Beloved or Midnight's Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude?" I start reaching for my harmonica.


Don't get me wrong. One Hundred Years is one of the most beautiful, funny, and moving postwar books. But since when can't we rent out space enough in our consciousnesses for both Rushdie and Rucker to inhabit, Calvino and Cadigan, Abe and Acker? Since when did generic apartheid bustle into the geography of our imaginations?

C-ps are "speed freaks"? Yeah, they are. What's the alternative, narratological narcolepsy? At its heart (yes, c-p has a heart, a Jarvic 501) c-p embraces an Avant-Pop sensibility that fuses narrative risk-taking (jump-cuts, cyberdelic language, appropriation, surrealism, acidic humor, etc.) with a pop impulse (SF, comic-book goofiness, speedtrain movement instead of psychological depth, etc.). Not unlike that Oakland Bay Bridge in Gibson's Virtual Light. Abandoned by the city after a megalithic earthquake, taken over by the homeless, crammed with patchwork dwellings that "had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic."

A crazy-quilt celebrating excess, cultural detritus, roiling creativity, that bridge is emblematic of Termite Art, a term Gibson appropriated from a 1962 essay ("White Elephant Art and Termite Art") by Manny Farber. If White Elephant Art believes in the idea of a "well-regulated area, both logical and magical," as in the films of Francois Truffaut, Farber argues, then Termite Art believes in freedom and multiplicity, as in the films of Laurel and Hardy, going "always forward eating [its] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leav[ing] nothing in [its] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." Sorry, John. C-p isn't a bunch of bourgeois white males in suburban flight. It's a whole bunch bigger than that. Than Shirley, Sterling, Laidlaw, and the others who had small hands in its roots. C-p's not a literary movement; it's a cultural attitude. It doesn't cartwheel about technology; it's tremendously ambivalent toward it. And it consists of a lot more than jacking off in cyberspace; it's ultimately about trying to make information free in a world that wants to batten it down, questioning where we live and how, trying to wake up the daydream nation. You know, the sorta stuff art has been about for, oh, a couple of millennia.

"Don't you, too, hope that when the last soft machine in cyberspace is about to disappear into the ultimate black hole of digital death, it will whistle The Magic Flute?" you swan-song, that damn harmonica in hand.

God no, John. I don't.

Me, I'm going down reading Mark Leyner and Jean Baudrillard simultaneously, a copy of WiReD in my lap, hypertext by Carolyn Guyer on the computer screen, television tuned to MTV, windows wide open, a jumbo jet falling out of the sky, my fire-retardant corrosion-resistant nickel-base alloy robo-enhanced methyl isocyanate flamethrower exploding, while I listen to Sonic Youth's Dirty turned up real, real loud.