Thursday, February 21, 2013

Embodiment and Reality in Neuromancer

            Dreyfus’ idea of embodiment is highly applicable to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, particularly through the novel’s main character, Chase. His life, now permanently (or so he thinks) removed from the matrix has become devoid of meaning. He bitterly shuns his reality in favor of a knowingly false one. It is not ignorance that motivates his melancholy but, rather, a feeling of malcontent in the real world.
            Citing Edward Castronova and Max Webber, Dreyfus writes, “Fans of virtual worlds are seeking and finding re-enchanted worlds…[the] transformation of the world into a casual mechanism has left many inhabitants of the modern world with an unaccountable feeling of loss” (Dreyfus, 92). This idea describes Case perfectly. In the very first pages of the novel, Gibson writes, relating to Case:

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he'd taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he'd still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void... The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no Console Man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through.
(Gibson, 4-5)

Introductory though the passage may be, it sets an important precedent for Case’s character. His general lack of interest in the real world is wrought of his inability to plug himself into the fake one. More than just a lack of interest, Gibson even goes as far as to infer that Case is suicidal, citing his fast and loose approach to criminal dealings in the dangerous black market in Chiba City. Reading this, it becomes necessary to ask why the matrix, the fake world, is so much less preferable to the real one.
            An examination of Case’s surroundings provides perhaps the most obvious clue. Surrounded by a dystopian criminal underworld and isolated (another of Gibson’s critiques of the internet), he finds that his new life is a far cry from his brief but triumphant life as a hacker. Where corporations would once pay him vast sums of money for his services, he now finds himself struggling, living on his meager payments for small time deals. In the matrix, he was a king, in the real world, he is nothing. Case’s drug use is important to remember as well. One can conclude that it replaces the thrill he felt in the matrix although, ironically, it only serves to deepen his feeling that the real world is not as good as the fake one. Ultimately, Case has become so attached to the matrix and his existence within it that he finds the real world wholly repulsive and is unable to take true pleasure in anything it has to offer.
            This information regarding Case is important in that it sets a tone of emotional dependence on cyberspace for him. However, Dreyfus’ idea of embodiment does not take center stage until we meet McCoy Pauley (or at least his saved consciousness) and later are introduced to Neuromancer. These two characters are literal interpretations of embodiment, fully conscious “beings” that are capable of existing without a body, fully sentient (though this is more relevant to Neuromancer) in cyberspace. The implications of such characters are plain to see and explain the generally melancholy, drab tone that permeates the whole book. The mere fact of their existence asks both Case and the reader a difficult question: if a physical body is not required to sustain consciousness, what makes the real world real and the matrix fake?
            Although Neuromancer technically only exists within the construct of cyberspace, his (its?) ability to influence real world events such as planting an entire sequence of events in Armitage’s mind certainly speak to his (its?) reality. Perhaps then, Neuromancer is meant to bridge the gap in a readers mind between the matrix and the real world. He (it?) even said to Case, “To live here is to live. There is no difference” (Gibson, 258). If a consciousness is all that is required to be considered alive, he is right. However, Neuromancer is much more than that. His (its?) orchestration of the entire driving sequence of events in the book shows motivations, an agenda, selfishness, and moral corruption. All of those qualities are usually attributed to humanity. The fact that a completely artificial consciousness possesses them serves to create a reasonable doubt in the reader’s mind as to the idea that Neuromancer cannot be real. Neuromancer’s embodiment is total as all of his imperfect qualities exist without a physical body. Thus, he (it?) serve as something of an intentional stumbling block for the reader, forcing them to wonder if this is the direction technology is heading.
            In conclusion, Dreyfus’ concept of embodiment can be found throughout Neuromancer. Case’s dissatisfaction with his life absent the matrix combined with the examples of saved and blended consciousness paint Gibson’s disturbing future of technology. It is a world in which embodiment has ceased to simply be an idea and is a reality in the most literal sense, forcing us to question the very nature of what is real and what is not. Largely because of this, Neuromancer is a challenging, uncomfortable read that raises far more questions that it gives answers. 


Janine Talis said...

This seems to be a pretty well thought essay. I especially like your discussion on whether having consciousness without a body affects what makes one reality real over another.

The one thing I was unsure about was how you interpreted Dreyfus' views on embodiment. I always assumed that Dreyfus saw the internet as the isolating force, but you seem to infer that it is the lack of internet that is the isolating force for Case. I agree with this (and believe I touched on it in my own essay), but I'm not sure if you clearly state it as being in slight opposition with Dreyfus' views.

The only other thing I would note is that you keep saying Neuromancer, instead of Wintermute. I don't remember reading him (it?) being referred to as Neuromancer, at least not yet. Otherwise, pretty great essay.

Adam said...

The first several paragraphs are a nicely written and focused way of introducing the the relationship between Dreyfus and Gibson. "Reading this, it becomes necessary to ask why the matrix, the fake world, is so much less preferable to the real one." I especially appreciate the quoted sentence - your introductory material is good, but you move along to a more focused question when it becomes necessary to do so.

While this passage is good in itself - "The mere fact of their existence asks both Case and the reader a difficult question: if a physical body is not required to sustain consciousness, what makes the real world real and the matrix fake?" - I'm moderately bothered that you're addressing the text generally instead of through particular passages. This novel is dense, and the rewards of precision are magnified in weird and dense texts. I'm also dubious about your claim that in the matrix Case was king - maybe he was of a higher status than he is in the real world (and maybe that's enough for your purposes) but remember his awe & terror of AIs, the experience of flatlining, and the fact that he *failed* in his attempt to steal from his employers.

I also think that the claim that neuromancers exists only in cyberspace is a little sloppy. There are physical mainframes, after all, which are at the very least the origin of that consciousness. Again - you're on a good track, but attention to the details would help you here.

Overall: Your interest in and clear thinking about the text is manifest throughout, and you begin very well. Instead of moving toward greater precision, though, if anything you get vague toward the end - maybe focus more on what Dreyfus has to teach us about Gibson, or vice-versa, in order to help you focus?