Capitalism, Neuromancer, and the “Great Refusal”
Marcuse defines the “Great Refusal” as a “protest against that which is” (Chap. 3). But this quick definition is lacking, and fails to adequately cover the broad category of what specifically the populace should be protesting against. In the introduction to the book’s second edition, Douglas Kellner says, “the Great Refusal is still practiced by oppositional groups and individuals who refuse to conform to existing oppression and domination…refuse to join the contemporary celebration of militarism, the forces of conservatism, and unrestrained capitalism” (Intro, xxxviii).
The argument whether Gibson’s novel Neuromancer participates in the “Great Refusal” is not an argument when it comes to capitalism. Neuromancer is absolutely a capitalist, one-dimensional society. Let me be clear in my argument—I will argue that Neuromancer fails to participate in the “Great Refusal” solely based on capitalism, without regard or consideration to any other variables.
Right from the beginning when we are introduced to Case, we see the shadowy underworld of Chiba City, located in Japan. Case describes his job as “hustling fresh capital with a cold intensity that had seemed to belong to someone else… synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl’s techno-criminal subcultures” (pg. 6, 7). The world Case lives in is distinctly capitalistic, and Gibson’s use of the certain word “capital” is intentional. The body has even become a “good” to be traded, sold, and bought by the Market.
For Marcuse, the “Great Refusal” would have included the absolute defiance against being defined by products or belongings, as this is would be a “social control.” Marcuse even states: “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil” (Chap. 1). Yet products and services define the world found in Neuromancer. Drugs, plastic surgery, guns, etc., all form a market. Even the youth is not immune; they show the culture of capitalism is not going to change. “The clientele were young, few of them out of their teens. They all seemed to have carbon sockets planted the left ear... a boy with a shaven head stared vacantly into space, a dozen spikes of microsoft protruding from the socket behind his ear” (pg. 57).
For Case, this capitalism has become a “life of toil.” He was once a bright, “console cowboy” until he made the mistake of stealing from his employer. His employer then crippled his nervous system, essentially making him “damaged goods.” However, his hacking services were needed, so Armitage became his employee. He was essentially “bought” for his services. Humans have become the products as well as the consumer. As Case puts it, “The body was meat,” to be bought, sold, altered, and engaged for certain services (pg. 6). Even down to the prostitutes lurking at Ratz’s bar, all the characters in the novel are entwined in, and directly participating in, a capitalist system, making them acceptant of a one-dimensional society. Just based on the demonstration of capitalism in the novel, the “Great Refusal” does not apply to Neuromancer.