Thursday, February 23, 2012

Haraway and Neuromancer

Donna Haraway argues in her essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto”, that “The world is subdivided by boundaries differentially permeable to information. Information is just that kind of quantifiable element (unit, basis of unity) which allows universal translation, and so unhindered instrumental power (called effective communication).”(Haraway, 164). In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the informational entity of Wintermute seeks to completely transcend physical and mental boundaries to become a god, but until it overcomes its manmade limits it is unable to do so. The inherent nature of all aspects of this transcendence is heavily ironic.

At first it appears that Wintermute is fully transcendent. The entire premise of the novel revolves around Case’s journey into the matrix for a task ordered by Armitage, who is a “…a catatonic fortress named Corto”(Gibson, 193) created by Wintermute. This implies that Wintermute manipulated Corto, created the personality of Armitage, hired Case to steal Dixie’s consciousness, and sent Case and Riviera into the matrix to allow itself to unite with Neuromancer. The entity is almost transcendent because it is almost unrestricted to physical boundaries. It can create new human personalities, possess the bodies of others, and even recreate reality.

However, the primary obstacle in its quest for transcendence has been the lack of a password to reunite with Neuromancer. It tells Case through the Finn, “If you knew, man, and told me [the password], I couldn’t know. It’s hardwired in. Someone else has to learn and bring it here”(173). Wintermute is barred from a particular part in cyberspace to disallow access to a particular piece of information, preventing complete omnipresence and omniscience. When Haraway’s description of the transcendent nature of information as an uninhibited entity of universal power is considered along with this idea, the matrix Wintermute inhabits becomes a virtually infinite body and mind, but with restrictions placed upon it by its creator. The restrictions prevent it from fully exploiting the infinity it inhabits and from transcending into deity.

This failed transcendence is inherently ironic because Wintermute, an almost-godlike overmind has to rely on Case, Molly, and Riviera, humans weakened by flesh to achieve the full status of a god. Because Case is responsible for entering the matrix and Molly and Riviera are responsible for navigating the physical world, the three of them can achieve a basic form of transcendence together, as they can together navigate both the physical and virtual without limit. This provides a significant contrast to Wintermute itself, who is restricted from accessing the key to unite with its other half and an additional layer of irony when considering that three humans coordinating their actions can achieve transcendence before a supercomputer.

When Wintermute and Neuromancer eventually do transcend, they do so into a single, united godlike entity while the humans in the novel maintain their individual earthly restrictions. As Haraway would note, this would be “…a 'final' irony since the cyborg is…an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space”(Haraway, 150-151). The combined AI is now “Nowhere. Everywhere…the total sum of the works”(Gibson, 269). The inherent irony of existing in a paradoxal state of all-being and all-nothingness is much like the irony present in its search for other transcendent AIs in space.

Perhaps until their searches are successful, none of these entities can ever be truly, universally transcendent.


Caia Caldwell said...


You have a good essay here, with lots of pertinent material and interesting analysis. The concept of Wintermute as a God-like figure is a fascinating angle, and one I did not think about until class discussion. I also like that you note "all aspects of this transcendence is heavily ironic," fitting in perfectly with Haraway. You go on to describe what Wintermute is able to do, but also what the AI is unable to do. The analysis is good, but I feel it can be pushed further.

Instead of just using plot examples of the powers/limitations of Wintermute, you should delve deeper. What are a discussion of "flesh"? You mention this briefly in your piece, but you could take this idea of humans ("body as meat") vs. AIs (almost transcending boundaries) and push it further. What is the future of the AIs? Will physical bodies become useless? Will machines always be bound in some way, even though Wintermute successfully merged with Neuromancer?

This merge needed human (or cyborg, as least) intervention to happen...Does this mean anything relevant? Anyway, just some ideas. Best of luck if you decide to revise!

Adam said...

One passage you don't cite that fascinates me (but you're in the same general section of the novel) is Wintermute's claim is that it is, by definition, that which does not know the password: it's pure information, but that information excludes as well as includes. That's just an observation that parallels some of what you're doing here.

You take interesting directions here, but I'd like to see more of an argument cohere. Are you ultimately concerned with the necessary failure of all transcendence? Or is there something about the particular failure of Wintermute-Neoromancer to be transcendent that concerns you? You're circling around lots of interesting stuff, but what your ultimate orientation to all of it is remains unclear to me.

Maybe the fact that Haraway is more or less critiquing all transcendence (together with origins and the idea of a telos) should play more of a role here?