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Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction

Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction - D. Harlan Wilson This review appeared in BULL SPEC #1, March 2010, as well as the New York Review of Science Fiction:TECHNOLOGIZED DESIRE: SELFHOOD AND THEBODY IN POSTCAPITALIST SCIENCE FICTIONby D. Harlan WilsonGuide Dog BooksReview by Samuel Montgomery-BlinnIn its just short of 5,000 words, Eric S. Raymond’s essay “APolitical History of SF” brings politics in juxtaposition withscience fiction and attempts to develop and defend a straightforwardthesis that science fiction is by its nature most compatiblewith political libertarianism. Amidst a backdrop ofthe rise and fall of several pushes and movements against thisunderlying compatibility, Raymond goes on to argue thatmainstream—that is to say, libertarian-leaning—science fictionwill continue to absorb and de-politicize the stories whichcomprise such counter-movements, from Cyberpunk to HardScience Fiction and onto future inroads against “the bedrockindividualism of Campbellian SF.”Since the essay’s publication in 2002, the ongoing foreignengagements and crumbling economy around the ultra-capitalistpolicies of much of the world’s leaders has led to a renewedround of questions about the humaneness of capitalismand the consumer culture which accompanies it. With thesesocietal questions have come several postcapitalist works ofnote, among them: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream,which examines the intersection of science, history, and politicsin an imagined far future of solar system-spanning humancolonies; a new edition of Terry Bisson’s alternative historyFire on the Mountain, which examines the course of history ifJohn Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry had succeeded and ledto a socialist movement among the freed slaves of the Confederatesouth; and Accelerando by Charles Stross, which envisionsan “Economy 2.0” of artificial intelligences andaugmented and simulated human consciousness.A common accompanying theme, however, of postcapitalistscience fiction is dystopian posthumanism: a merging ofthe biological self with technology with disastrous global consequences.Such stories swarm with clones, cyborgs, and virtualrealities. These latter stories have a tendency todehumanize the human, many seeming to strive to answer thequestion, “What is humanity?” while characters plug or jackor dial into virtual, highly-technologized existences.With this backdrop of science fiction, along with that ofdecades of culture, philosophy, politics, and history as itsbase, and expanding his science fiction data field to includecinema as the prevailing mass medium for such fiction, prolificfiction and non-fiction author D. Harlan Wilson’s TechnologizedDesire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist ScienceFiction is an ambitious undertaking, analyzing the currents ofall these information flows and examining them for patternsand meaning with a keen, postmodern eye.His success is a resounding and accessible one, though hisanalysis seems to have been directed toward and apply mostspecifically to hypercapitalist or dystopian posthuman fictionrather than definitively postcapitalist. Presented in five sectionsand framed by an introduction and coda, with each sectionanalyzing a particular work or collection, Wilsonilluminates a growing consistency in theme, mood and message,aptly captured in the book’s description from publisherGuide Dog Books: that “the universe of consumer-capitalismis an illusory prison from which there is no escape—despitethe fact that it is illusory.” He ably defends his central thesis,that the merging of self and technology in a “techocapitalist”future, where the subjectivity of the self has expanded outwardthrough technology, leads inevitably to a loss of self,adrift in a sea of media, information, and consumption, fueledever more violently by the very production that a highly tech-nologized society demands. That, despite an innate human resistanceto the technocapitalist machinery, “free will is a fiction.”He begins with an examination of Cameron Crowe’s 2001film Vanilla Sky, in which a disfigured man learns through aglitch that his reality is virtual, and is given a choice “betweenreturning to the real world or to another, glitch-free dream.”Wilson argues that this is a typical construct, defining good,wholesome “humanity” as a return to the “real” world, despitethe still-functioning capitalist technological and politicalmachinery which reigns there and from which there is no escape.The second chapter analyzes William S. Burroughs’ “cutup”trilogy from the early 1960s (The Soft Machine, The TicketThat Exploded, and Nova Express) as illustrating that even thetechnologies of the 1950s and 60s were used as mediators of socialinteraction; just another, yet maddeningly large and fast,step on the path that humanity has taken since the wheel, papyrus,and the printing press first started the expansion and dilutionof the self into our technological extensions. Wilsonparticularly uses Burroughs’ work as a representative depictionof the inevitability and inescapability of the self fromtechnology; that there is “no choice but to live as a technopathologicalextension of the machine.”The most captivating ofWilson’s analyses follows aschapter 3, where he turns his attention to Sam Raimi’s ArmyofDarkness. In it, the protagonist Ash, portrayed in the 1992film by Bruce Campbell, attempts to escape a life of drudgeryin service to the modern capitalist world but is thrown backin time into a world of witches and the undead. Reading Ash’sjourney to the medieval world as a “schizophrenic delusion ofgrandeur,” Wilson pits Ash’s experience against postmoderncapitalist philosophy and each comes out a bit worse for thewear. Ash “only succeeds in reifying his status as a commonpostmodern subject” due to his underlying acceptance of thetechnologized, capitalist reality to which he longs to return.It would have been hard for Wilson to ignore The Matrix,despite the overabundance of overanalysis of its content. Afterexamining the ultraviolent, hyperconsumerist, “global freemarket” future world of Max Barry’s 2003 novel Jennifer Government,Wilson decodes the Matrix with both a scathing eyefor its collection of tropes and clichés and as a map into thecollective subjective experiences of its creators and fans. Hisanalysis here is memorable and casts a wide net, beginning bypulling the Spider-Man films into the discussion (the “badness”of both the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus being embodiedin their technological extensions), contrasting theissues of choice and enslavement alongside a brief dismissal ofSpider-Man’s “good” technological powers as “natural”—“thespider that bit him being a radioactive, genetically tailoredmutation.” Wilson uses this illustration to further solidify hisconcept of the terminal choice, that being whether to give upthe self entirely or to, effectively, embrace a schizophrenic existencein the face of dehumanizing technology and choices.Bringing in analyses from writers as diverse as the revolutionarysocialist Slavoj Žižek and the cyberpunk and nowsolidly futurist Bruce Sterling, Wilson exhumes the sourcematerial of the Matrix trilogy and brings each, in turn, underthe harsh light of his analytical framework. To illustrate thedangers of allowing our fictional realities to become the backdropto our daily existence, he contrasts the Matrix trilogywith another trilogy, that ofWilliam Gibson’s cyberpunkSprawl trilogy (Neuromancer and on): “Gibson speaks in thetechnologized, fractal, jargon-infested language of deterritorialization.But the Wachowski’s speak plainly, as it were, in thecommon, everyday language of today’s masses, underscoringthat our primal desire is to be controlled by our technocapitalistextensions,” implying that the over-jargoned, freneticvocabulary of Gibson has become, in essence, both our innerand outer monologues.Wilson transitions toward his conclusion by arguing that,particularly as evidenced by the use of advanced technologyin the filming of the Matrix trilogy, we are inhabiting a realitywhich is becoming harder and harder to distinguish from sciencefiction, leading the elements of often-marginalized sciencefiction to become the archetypes of daily life andmainstream experience. Capitalist technologies, he argues, incorporateand shape the ideas of science fiction for “unrelentingsocioeconomic ends” in an increasingly violent,self-perpetuating cycle of production and consumption. Finally,Wilson argues, within this inescapable cycle the veryfoundation of science fiction will follow the continuing commoditizationof our inner lives in a final shift from “a genreof fancy” to “a genre of capital.” Raymond, as it turns out,might end up having being right, though not necessarily dueto a fundamental compatibility or aesthetic of author oraudience. Instead, it is the very structure of our currenttechnocapitalist reality which might constrain the storieswhich can be authentically told.Addressing the accessibility of this critique, it reads quitewell to a layperson, here meaning someone with at least a basicinterest in philosophy, technology, and science fiction.There is an economy of technical terms from postmodernanalysis, and Wilson presents the denser portions withenough background to keep the reader from being left adrift,with the introduction’s setting ofWilson’s starting points foranalysis among the more challenging for its references to theprevailing modes of postmodern literary and cultural analysis.At about 200 pages, split into five sitting-sized chapters, itserves well both in its intended purpose as an in-depth surveyof the landscape of ideas and culture emerging from science fiction’sintersection with our increasingly technologized futureand as an introduction to such topics.In future efforts to expand or build upon Wilson’s TechnologizedDesire, writers might do well to explore more than thedehumanizing side of fictional worlds which Wilson has engagedhere. By including well-imagined and yet fully humanpostcapitalist worlds, particularly those of postscarcity—eventhose with a high level of technology—other insights into thepaths our future selves may take might be gleaned, as well asbeginning to form a more balanced and hopeful picture fortechnology’s place as an extension of our consciousness andsubjectivity. Alternatively or additionally, such analysis couldexpand to include explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-technology, orprimitivist works, explaining how they fit into this picture ofinevitable over-technologization and technocapitalist total controlof choice. While these may, like Raimi’s Ash in Army ofDarkness, end up being properly characterized as reifying thevery framework they set out to reject, such missing sisterpieces to Wilson’s analysis are intentional, as he has set hissights explicitly on stories of over-technologization of the currentlydominant capitalist identity, revealing glimpses of postcapitalistidentities “in silhouette.” It remains to be seen,however, whether stories of hope against the inevitability oftechnocapitalist dominance will be accepted by readers andcritics as anything more than as Wilson now characterizesRobinson’s Mars trilogy of the first half of the 1990s: “authenticfantasy instead of an extrapolated potential reality.” Fromour subjective positions of already over-technologized desire,Wilson concludes, such characters as Robinson’s “colorful,wide-eyed personalities” are simply not believable any longer.Within his framework presented here, further and wideranalysis should be encouraged to explore and define theseidentities; otherwise, as Wilson’s deconstruction here warns,we may find ourselves firmly caught in the cogs of the machinesthat we ourselves rush, madly, to build.