Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dreyfus and Gibson

Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet heavily deals with the concept of embodiment. To Dreyfus, embodiment requires the presence of the physical self because a virtual world contains “…no real risk. Thus, no courage is required and no thrill and satisfaction can be experienced”(Dreyfus, 95). He also mentions the consequences of not being physically present, stating that “…focal occasions require a shared mood and the sense that all who are present are present are sharing that mood.”(108). However William Gibson’s Neuromancer contradicts this description of embodiment, as his virtual world not only contains real-life consequences, but allows both greater human connections and a viable and necessary alternative to the real world.

One important way in which Dreyfus’s negative conceptualization of virtual embodiment is counteracted is through the event that drives the entire novel – Case stealing from his employer. Although it is not mentioned explicitly, Gibson highly implies that the nature of this theft was virtual in nature and when “[Case] kept something for himself and tried to move it through a fence in Amsterdam”(Gibson, 5), he was punished for stealing virtual data, having his nervous system poisoned and preventing him from accessing the matrix. This, in turn, leads to Case’s drug addiction and frantic search for a way to restart his career.

The act of stealing in a virtual environment leads to horrific mutilation in the real world for Case, and in contrast to Dreyfus’s description of real-world embodiment as shared experiences and moods, this cutoff matrix makes it even more difficult for him to connect to others and live a fulfilling life. Not once in the beginning pages of the novel is he depicted to have any kind of a relationship with anyone other than Linda Lee, who has been brutally murdered, and all of his acquaintances are weapons dealers or black clinic associates. He has to avoid people, as many of them are out to kill him, as revealed in his conversation with Deane. The real world, in vast contradiction to Dreyfus’s claims, leads to complete and utter unfulfillment for Case and almost ruins his life.

In contrast, once he meets Molly and loses his drug addiction, Case is given an opportunity to directly connect with her to once again enter the virtual world. He literally shares a body with her in the process, allowing him access to a form of empathy impossible in the real world due to separation of individuals. He can experience her interactions, her senses, and her physical self, even though he cannot hear her private thoughts. The process itself creates a new kind of interaction that amounts to the fusion of embodiment between two people. It allows Case a deeper connection with Molly, allowing them to eventually complete their task and steal Pauley’s memory. Gibson describes the matrix as “…a drastic simplification of the human sensorium, at least in terms of presentation, but simstim itself…as a gratuitous multiplication of flesh input”(55). But while this flesh input may not allow for a literal fused consciousness, it allows the two to understand each other better and forge a kind of empathetic fused embodiment that allows them to complete Armitage’s task.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that one of the reasons virtual connections seem to be so much stronger than physical ones is because the real world has become exceedingly gaudy, cheap, and fake. Case observes that “[an] elevator, like Cheap Hotel, was an afterthought, lashed to the building with bamboo and epoxy”(19). In this futuristic society, frugality has become accepted, with the deterioration of everything in sight being an everyday occurrence for its inhabitants. People have become neglectful of their surroundings, implying a kind of indifference towards their own existence and society.

They respond to this overwhelming shoddiness and neglect by creating a virtual world, which can exist as a positive alternative to their sad reality. In their new world, human potential is limitless. People can embody each other and their surroundings, directly experience how others feel, create virtual surroundings, and use all of these to add meaning to their own lives that does not exist in the real world. This scenario contradicts Dreyfus’s accusation that the virtual embodiment is riskless and lacks true human connection.

Gibson’s presentation of the concept of embodiment provides an important contrast to critics like Dreyfus who claim that a virtual world cannot provide the benefits of reality, however Neuromancer’s depiction is not simply one of benefits, but one of alternatives. In an increasingly-more-decrepit and materialistic world, cyberspace allows the characters an alternative that is both viable and necessary.


Kira Scammell said...


I think you did a very good job with this post. You made a clear, concise argument, and I could easily follow what you were talking about.

I think to strengthen your argument you could expand on a few points. You say, "Additionally, it is worth mentioning that one of the reasons virtual connections seem to be so much stronger than physical ones is because the real world has become exceedingly gaudy, cheap, and fake." which is very contradictory to what we discussed in class. If you recall, we were claiming that the internet was what was cheapening relationships and interactions. Which may be a nice juxtaposition to put in your paper somewhere. I did particularly enjoy that paragraph; it puts everything you're saying into a very appropriate context.

Adam said...

I'd like to see something in the first paragraph which said what you're trying to do with Dreyfus and Gibson. I think you are putting them into tension in an interesting and, at least at some level, correct way. But where do you go from there? You could give us at least an initial indication of your direction.

The way you trace out Case's position *seems* too much like a summary, although really there's an argument there - it would have been better, again, to orient us more clearly in the first paragraph. I like the way you connect the risks of cyberspace with consequences in the real world (we might point out that for people who make their livings online now, in legitimate but especially in illegitimate ways, feel plenty of risk... I suspect this is one direction that you're heading in).

I think your initial reading of the significance of him being inside Molly's simstim is good, although I don't think you do enough with Case's dislike of simstim, and his preference for cyberspace. We might argue that they are fundamentally similar or dissimilar as kinds of embodiment - and we might say that one conforms more with Dreyfus, or that both challenge him. I'd like to see you be a little more clear and explicit about how you're relating the two: to say that simstim is true embodiment is not to say the same for simstim, and vice versa.

In the last three paragraphs, whether you realize it or not, you are beginning to portray cyberspace and/or the simstim experience not as a flight from or parallel to the real world, but as an articulate rebellion against it - that is, as something like Marcuse's great refusal. I think that's an interesting approach, but it's far from complete, or even clear, which returns me to the most fundamental question here.

What's your real purpose? I *think* that you are critiqueing Dreyfus, by arguing that Gibson shows us at *multiple* levels that "virtual" reality can be and will be "embodiment," of a sort, and full of risk. If that's what you're doing, you might connect what you're saying then to our world. If that's not what you're doing, and really you're offering more of a reading of Gibson, I'd like your argument to be clearer. Regardless, there's a lot of great material here, which just needs a more coherent argument to run through it.