The first sentence of Gibson’s novel, although difficult for readers to envision, depicts a merging of digital technology and reality, a world in which the “sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Gibson’s fused image of a dystopian landscape is an effort to place us inside a society whose individuals define themselves by their commodities, in which body modification and access to technology provide not only “instant gratification,” but also an identity as a part of the “system.” (Marcuse Chapter 3). Neuromancer illustrates that technology, as a form of social control, distances the individual from reality—in the same way modern, commercialized society substitutes genuine experiences with instant satisfaction and new products. Gibson’s detached prose functions as a form of refusal of this mentality, capturing a disembodied world through mechanical, estranging, visceral language that jars the reader into appreciating a tangible world that embraces emotionality, thought, and individuality.
By breaking the trends of traditional literature, Gibson’s use of language rejects the “very structure of discourse” and redefines the meaning of ordinary language by using it as an “’absolute object’ itself, designat[ing] an intolerable, self-defeating universe—a discontinuum” (Marcuse Chapter 3). Like Bertolt Brecht’s use of the dialectical or Epic theater to force audiences to experience the way that technological culture distorts reality (and the needs of the individual), by selling forms of escapism. Brecht rejected this Marcusian concept by aiming to emotionally affect his viewers, arousing them from their weakened state of disconnect and oppression. Gibson, with his use of visceral and psychologically probing language—“the body was meat”—awakens readers by forcing them to confront the established Reality Principle, and through negative thought, like artists, responds emotionally to threats of repressive desublimation. Neuromancer, with its technologically merged landscape, lacks any kind of sublime or sensual language, but instead aims to “answer to the threat of behaviorism—the attempt to rescue the rationality of the negative” (Marcuse Chapter 3).
Gibson’s cyborg prose takes descriptions of reality and subjects them to basically imagined concept of wireless connectivity: “A year here, and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly… he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void” (Gibson 5). This text suggests Case’s addiction to technology, and that the Matrix functions as Case’s main form of happiness, but readers cannot possibly envision Gibson’s inaccurate and vague description. While the reader can easily understand the words “lattice” and “logic,” the thought of using such words in a describing phrase leads to no concrete understanding of cyberspace, but rather detached, ungraspable meaning. Likewise, there is little connection to be made between the phrase “colorless void” and an actual representation of this world, which translates as alienating to readers, forcing them to confront the limitations of ordinary language. Case’s satisfaction as a disembodied consciousness allows him to use the Matrix to “transcend everyday experiences,” thereby flattening out any contradiction from that status quo. Case, like estranged readers un able to grasp a concrete understanding, a truly representative meaning for this language, lives a detached reality in Chiba City, in which he is incapable of functioning without access to commercialized technology, without any real meaning to his life. Such vague language responds to the one-dimensional nature of this societal structure by illustrating limited access to meaning, and the tendency for a lack of meaning (and the need for some kind of escape, whether it be technology, drugs, or consumption), to compensate for the total elimination of emotional meaning. Gibson’s writing intends to shock the reader into a realization of Marcusian disconnect and instant gratification, to show that technology and an illusion of happiness weaken negative thought and the rationality of protest. By challenging the readers’ understanding of the cultural meaning of language, Gibson writes philosophically to force us to consider the emotional repercussions of disconnecting words with meaning.
In the sex scene with Molly, Gibson uses purposefully mechanical language to illustrate reliance on technology, and it is the only moment in the novel that Case experiences euphoria without being able to project on to the Matrix. The reader notices, however, that the effect is a dulled eroticism that remains muted compared to the nearly indescribable pleasure derived from technology in this novel. Even as Case is climaxing, he thinks not of Molly, but of the Matrix: “the images came pulsing back, the faces, fragments of neon arriving and receding” (Gibson 44). The deliberate lack of sensual language paired with vague, technical description of the Matrix, and the fact that Case finds a more emotional connection with mechanized technology than a live human being, alarms the reader. Although he cannot physically jack-in to the Matrix, Case’s obsession and desire for satisfaction override a moment of personal interaction, a real human connection. Gibson alienates readers in this scene by presenting the bodies of these characters as commodity, an opportunity for the technologic industry to impose its own needs onto its individuals rather than an opportunity for an emotional interaction: “[H]e touched her face. Unexpected hardness of the implanted lenses. ‘Don’t,’ she said, ‘fingerprints’” (Gibson 44). We see here Gibson utilizing language to block the “self-transcendence of the libido” through mechanized images that draw readers out of a moment of nonrepressive sublimation, and into an environment in which technological products take priority over human sensibilities—the emotional resonance that contains the capability for negative thought against this disembodied society. Instead of the softness of human flesh, we see Gibson juxtapose an image of Molly’s hard implanted lenses, her harsh demeanor, and aggression. Instead of an embrace of human connectivity, Gibson purposefully includes a moment of tension between what is sensual (touching a lover’s face), and what is technical and void of meaning (asking a lover to please not touch your face because it’s an annoyance).
Gibson’s language in this scene shows loyalty to the system that these bodies or individuals occupy. Instead of speaking with emotionality in mind, he uses operational language to describe the movement between Molly and Case: “She rode him that way, impaling herself, slipping down on him again and again” (Gibson 44). The author’s word choice here aims not to entertain readers, but to repulse them, to shock them with a mimicked mentality of a society based on processes of operational tasks. Diction such as
“rode” and “impaling” register as violent images in the mind of the “bodied” reader, but remain inconsequential in this disembodied world. This is a distinction that Gibson needs his readers to see in order for his writing to be understood as a mockery of this detached way of living. Marcuse explains that “sexuality turns into a vehicle for the bestsellers of oppression” because society, much like Gibson’s world, “turns everything it touches into a potential source of progress and of exploitation… imply[ing] the possibility of a simultaneous release of repressed sexuality and aggressiveness” (Marcuse Chapter 3). At the beginning of the novel, Case explains that “The body was meat… a prison of his own flesh” (Gibson 7). These characters believe their bodies are useless because of a confusing of needs based on society’s desire to manipulate individuals into committing operational action without thought or question. Gibson illustrates Molly and Case not engaging in any sort of thought or emotion, but instead illustrates the “sexual domination” of a character who finds himself distracted by shapeless thoughts of his desire to escape reality. This is a metaphor for the oppressive relationship of society (its will to dominate through sexuality rather than eros and human connection), and the individual (distracted by addictions to instant gratification and totally accepting of aggression and domination). This book harps on technological dependence revealed through language that alienates, exploring emotionality and individuality that our world is missing by drastically depicting a society in there is no protest to this lack of meaning, only disillusion. We see Molly and Case’s interaction as horrifyingly mechanical, not erotic, but simply to these characters another form of “instant gratification” that should force us to call this oppressive sexuality into question, to object to it, and to feel genuine attachment to the natural feelings of eroticism. This negative thought opposes industry’s tendency to unify all emotional feelings into one-dimension of rational thought that ends in individuals embracing technology and the “Happy Consciousness,” over sublime, human connection.
Still, Marcuse says it best: “The efforts to recapture the Great Refusal in the language of literature suffer the fate of being absorbed by what they refute” (Marcuse Chapter 3). In the beginning, Gibson uses “linguistic structure to imply a subversion of the experience of nature” as a transcendent attempt to demonstrate the threat of disembodied technology; however, as with the Marcusian flattening out of contradictions and the unification of opposites, Gibson’s prose translated to a commercialized industry as an opportunity for a money-making, cyberpunk franchise. Instead of embracing Gibson’s language as a critique of society viewing people as easy-to-manipulate commodities, the way that Brechtian theater prompted self-awareness from its audience members, modern society preferred instead to view Molly and Case as stock characters and assimilate Gibson’s text into a library of culturally-insignificant works. Previously-transcendent works are manipulated and compressed so that their meaning is confused to the point where that it functions for the needs of the society, and no longer pose any threat to one-dimensional rationality. Neuromancer, as a transcendent text, quickly failed to renew sense of appreciation for reality because society instead used it as a tool to usher in the age of wireless Internet, placing industry priority over individual need and negative thought. Concerning his language as a whole, Gibson transcended the boundaries of literature by refusing to represent concrete meaning in his descriptions and reorienting readers with reality through non-emotional resonance and a writing style that disconnects readers from the illusion of representative language. Like Brecht, he draws readers back into a reality in which negative thought can protest society’s desire to suppress or unify emotion and connectivity as an alternative to consumption and addiction in the face of the human condition.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York City: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1884.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. (Boston: Beacon, 1964)