Friday, March 23, 2012

Revision For Blog #6: Transcendence in Gibson's Neuromancer

            In his One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that “artistic alienation is the conscious transcendence of the alienated existence – a ‘higher level’ or mediated alienation” (p 3).  Marcuse believes that the work of the artist transcends the imposed boundaries and restrictions of capitalistic society, creating a ‘higher level’ of society amongst the artists.  When attempting to apply Marcuse’s “transcendence” into a “higher level” to Gibson’s Neuromancer, this transcendence can most obviously be applied to Wintermute, an Artificial Intelligence which seeks to transcend its own informational boundaries by surpassing man-made locks which would allow him to combine with Neuromancer, his brother AI present in the Core of the Villa Straylight.  Upon achieving its goal, Wintermute transforms into a God-like entity, transcending the constructed limits imposed upon it by its creators.  However, Wintermute needs human intervention in order to facilitate his transformation.
            Later in his book, Marcuse expands on his celebration of the ‘higher culture’ present in forms of art.  I would argue that one can liken “the salon, the concert, the opera, [and] theater” to Cyberspace, as all five of these “are designed to create and invoke another dimension of reality.”  Also, “their attendance requires festive-like preparation,” and thus “they cut off and transcend everyday experience” (Marcuse, 5).  In order to jack into the Matrix, Case definitely engages in “festive-like preparation,” assembling his Ono-Sendai, g-web, trodes, and a laundry list of other devices in order to interact with Cyberspace, achieving alienation from reality.  This, however, does not make him transcendent as Wintermute is transcendent, of course, as Wintermute is able to manipulate Case’s environment in the physical world (as well as in the Matrix), recall Case’s memories, and assume personalities from Case’s past as a communication medium.  I would argue that within the Matrix, Case successfully achieves the alienation and distance from reality which he desires, much in the same way that he uses drugs to accomplish the same ends.
            Science fiction author and critic Glenn Grant promotes his thoughts on transcendence in Gibson’s novel in his article “Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”.”   Grant feels that there is “an innate (programmed) drive in each of Gibson’s characters, the drive to transcend the self” (42).  Grant uses the word “Detournement” (French for “hijacking,” or “diversion”) to describe the phenomenon which many of Neuromancer’s characters engage in, in order to achieve some higher frame of being.  Grant defines “technological detournement… [as] appropriating tools and putting them to uses for which they were not originally intended” (Grant, 49).  Grant notes that in Neuromancer, most of Gibson’s characters use technology in order to escape their “bodies, their pasts, or their eventual deaths” (Grant, 49).  Grant’s article is an analysis of how the various characters in Neuromancer use technology in order to achieve what he defines as transcendence.   His definition is closely related to the Marcusian definition, focused primarily upon alienation and disconnection to the physical, material world.  Grant proclaims that for the majority of Gibson’s characters, “the preferred method of transcendence is through technology”, particularly via “personal reprogramming for expanded abilities” (Grant, 43).  When attempting to analyze the transcendence achieved by both Case and Wintermute in Gibson’s novel, however, I think that this definition of transcendence is a bit too narrow.  While characters such as Molly and the Panther Moderns do use various technological methods to elevate their potential as humans, I feel that true “transcendence” should be likened more to an otherworldly transformation; an evolution (even if temporary, as for Case) into something capable of overcoming previously prevalent restrictions.  Molly and the Panther Moderns, although arguably more capable and powerful than a “virgin” human, such as Case, are still human, and use their self-imposed bodily enhancements in an attempt to become something which surpasses normal human capabilities.  This does not place them in a heightened state of awareness and being, however, which Case is capable of experiencing within the Matrix.
            In order to accomplish its mission of transforming into superintelligence, Wintermute manipulates Colonel Corto, re-creating him via the personality of Armitage.  Wintermute has yet achieved its potential as a transcendent being during this point of the novel, however, as it is unable to bypass his creators’ security systems to unite with Neuromancer.  Wintermute is actually completely dependent upon Case, Molly, Riviera, and Armitage, as they are the only ones who can gain access to the word which would unlock its restrictions to uniting with Neuromancer, Wintermute’s twin AI.  However, Wintermute still possesses transcendent qualities in the physical world, as well as within his world of the Matrix.  For example, a snag in Wintermute’s plans occurs when three Turing agents track Case to Freeside from Chiba City and arrest him.  While attempting to escort Case to Geneva for a trial, Wintermute is able to systematically manipulate Case’s surrounding physical environment, “[killing] ‘em all” (Gibson, 164) to free Case from captivity.   It is also capable of manipulating certain security apparatuses in the Villa Straylight, allowing Maelcum and Case to break into the Tessier-Ashpool complex and achieve Wintermute’s goal under time constraints.
            At the end of the novel, when Case guides the Kuang program into the cyberspace towers, effectively precipitating Wintermute’s transformation, I would argue that Case himself achieves a transcendent state:
“In the instant before he drove the Kuang’s sting through the base of the first tower, he attained a level of proficiency exceeding anything he’d known or imagined.  Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved, Kuang moving with him, evading his attackers with an ancient dance, Hideo’s dance, grace of the mind-body interface granted him, in that second, by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.”
-Gibson, 262
Here Case, although snapped back to reality instantly after achieving this level of higher consciousness, is able to achieve “a level of proficiency exceeding anything he’d known or imagined,” as a human jacked into Cyberspace.  This further validates Gibson’s vision of the Matrix as being “another dimension of reality” (Marcuse, 3).  Also noteworthy here is that Case is able to achieve this heightened state only “by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.”  He lets go of all of his worldly inhibitions, clinging onto nothing but his “self-loathing” (Gibson, 262).  Case is able to tap into his hatred and self-loathing as a result of his impatience with 3Jane in the core room, who is hesitant to give up the word which would grant Wintermute the transformation he desires.  What I find particularly interesting is the way which Case berates 3Jane, airing his frustrations about the Tessier-Ashpool’s Straylight Villa project:  “’Give us the fucking code,’ he said.  ‘If you don’t…what’ll ever fucking change for you?  You’ll wind up like the old man.  You’ll tear it all down and start building again!  You’ll build the walls back, tighter and tighter…I got no idea at all what’ll happen if Wintermute wins, but it’ll change something!’”  (Gibson, 260)  Case expresses his anger at the seemingly meaningless T.A. corporation’s building project, and consequently is rewarded with a temporary transcendent state.
            Wintermute also achieves transcendence at the end of the novel, transforming into the superintelligence which he desired to become courtesy of Case, Molly, and Maelcum’s efforts.  As a result, Wintermute “meshed somehow with Neuromancer and become something else,” appearing to Case in his suite at the Hyatt.  His identity becomes all-encompassing, transcending the reality of Cyberspace:  “I’m the matrix, Case…I’m the sum total of the works, the whole show” (Gibson, 269).  Wintermute’s transformed, transcendent entity makes for the “Centauri System,” (Gibson, 270) searching for other superintelligences to interact with.  It truly achieves Marcuse’s ideal of a “higher level,” now possessing Neuromancer’s “personality,” and “immortality,” along with Wintermute’s ability to “[effect] change in the world outside” (Gibson, 269).  Wintermute/Neuromancer, as a superintelligent AI program within the Matrix, is capable of achieving a God-like state, whereas Case is forced to return to his mundane human life, returning to his world of earthly restrictions, with his transcendence within the Matrix present only as memory.
            The relationship between Case and Wintermute’s transcendence is a difficult and interesting subject, as it appears that neither character’s transformations would have been possible without the help of the other.  Wintermute’s influence on Case’s transcendent experience is more plainly expressed, as Case’s otherworldly hacking experience with the Kuang program is a byproduct of Wintermute’s efforts and desires.  Wintermute, before combining with Neuromancer to become superintelligence, exists as a powerful artificial intelligence, capable of (as I’ve mentioned before) affecting change in the outside world.  However, while it is incapable of being physically present in the world outside, Wintermute still possesses certain powers and abilities which far exceed that of any human – technologically modified or not.
            I would argue that Wintermute, before combining with Neuromancer, is already transcendent in comparison to the human characters in the novel, as he is capable of interacting with their memories and physical surroundings. Take Wintermute’s construction of Armitage, for example.  Wintermute itself is able to reprogram the psychologically damaged Colonel Corto, reassembling the shell-shocked war veteran into a facilitator to the operation which Case is ultimately assigned to.  Without its already God-like capabilities, Wintermute is unable to achieve the further transcendence into superintelligence, which Case ultimately provides, as a result of Wintermute’s already-transcendent capabilities.
            Case’s loss of ego and personality into something otherworldly better-fits Grant’s definition of transcendence, as his higher frame of being within the Matrix allows him to facilitate the combination of Wintermute and Neuromancer into superintelligence, a feat which, under normal circumstances, no human would be capable of accomplishing.  Simultaneously, Case and Wintermute morph into “something they were not intended to be” (Grant, 47).  Case achieves a state of human transcendence within the Matrix; Wintermute achieves a state transcending both worldly and technological restrictions. Wintermute seems to give Case all of the tools necessary for him to achieve the frame of being necessary to destroy the Tessier-Ashpool ICE, and both Wintermute and Case need each other’s help in order to reach a higher state of being.  Until Case’s intervention, Wintermute is still capable of becoming more, of transcending both earthly (he is devoid of personality, voice, and a unique physical earthly appearance) and technological (Wintermute is unable to combine with Neuromancer without help from the humans he recruits) restrictions.  I feel that as Wintermute/Neuromancer, Wintermute successfully transcends imposed boundaries both on Earth and within the Matrix, and truly transforms into “a vast mind engulfing the whole of the Matrix.  A god for Cyberspace” (Grant, 47).


Gibson, William.  Neuromancer.  New York:  The Berkley Publishing Group, 1984.  Print.
Marcuse, Herbert.  One Dimensional Man, Ch. 3
Grant, Glenn. "Transcendence through Detournement in William Gibson's "Neuromancer"." Science Fiction Studies. 17.1 (1990): 41-49. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.  <>.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Here's your strength: you have a strong grasp of an import, insistent theme in the novel, and you explore it not only through the text but through a single effective piece of research.

Here's your weakness: you come dangerously close to repeating Grant's thoughts, rather than building on them. The most obvious example of this is the ending: your conclusion is simply a line from Grant's essay. I'm not criticizing your choice of citation - I'm pointing out that if you're trying to demonstrate that both Case and Wintermute are transcendent, and if you're trying to explore that transcendence, is that much more than a repetition of Grant?

You start out thinking about artistic alienation, which isn't the same thing. Artistic alienation exists in tension with alienation as such, transcending it. This artistic alienation, leading to transcendence - "The Great Refusal" is not the same as transcendence in the literal, practical sense that even Case, let alone Wintermute, experience.

This doesn't mean that exploring the relationship between "literal" and artistic transcendence is a bad idea - it's a good idea! As far as I can tell, that was your intention. But what you actually did , while remaining interesting, is also far less ambitious. Even though you begin with Marcuse, he is ultimately irrelevant to the essay - a problem that could have been avoided by a clearer statement of your argument (which develops only gradually) - which would thus have given you something to adhere to.