Thursday, February 21, 2013

“Matrix Madness: The Drug of the Disembodiment in Neuromancer” – Taylor Hochuli: Blog Essay #4, Prompt #2

               New technology is a drug that we are barely able to handle. It promises better experiences and better lives through use, causing an addictive effect. It has reached a point where staying away from technology too long seems impossible. When the power goes out for weeks during blizzards or hurricanes, most people don’t know what to do with themselves without a television, computer, or smartphone once the battery has run down. This addictive nature is seen in the book Neuromancer where the main character, Case, continually longs to be in a “matrix” and experiences drug-like euphoria when he finally returns to it. He wishes to leave his body behind and join, “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” (pg. 51 Gibson, 1984). According to Dr. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book On the Internet, such addictive nature to leaving one’s body behind or reverence for digital people is not possible. He argues that such disembodiment could not be more attractive than real life due to issues like limited telepresence to a loss of risk in such a “matrix”. William Gibson makes disembodiment an attractive concept with Case’s drug-like treatment of the “matrix” which directly refutes the conclusions of Hubert Dreyfus.

                Case is described as a “cyberspace cowboy” who worked wonders in the matrix without his body (pg. 5 Gibson, 1984). Already, this glorified title given to Case promotes the advantages of working in the matrix rather than working in real life. The novel begins with Case slowly falling into a suicidal depression since he cannot enter the matrix anymore. After trying to steal from his employers, Case is injected with a neurotoxin that blocks him from being the expert hacker he once was. Case directly comments that being removed permanently from the matrix was “the Fall” trapping him in “a prison of his own flesh” (pg. 6 Gibson, 1984). This idea of being trapped in the body directly conflicts with the idea that the unique, “emotional and intuitive capacities of [the] body,” that Dreyfus says people can’t live without (pg. 5 Dreyfus, 2009). Case looks at the “capacities of the body” as limiting and confining him like a jail rather than praising the body’s emotional ability. There is a contrast between the real life of Case and his life in the matrix that also supports disembodiment over living in a body. Case informs the reader that in real life he, “[is] no console man, no cyberspace cowboy,” and becomes, “just another hustler, trying to make it through” (pg. 5 Gibson, 1984). He constantly praises his experience in the Matrix while hating everything real around him. Case, when in reality, is on the run from murderous back-alley businessmen and had his heart broken by a Miss Linda Lee which takes a toll on his “emotionally capable body”. It nearly kills him as Case turns to drink and drugs to compensate for the loss of his disembodiment; an escape from all the chaos in his real life. He is even seen crying during the night just wanting to, “reach the console that wasn’t there” (pg. 5 Gibson, 1984).

                Case reveres the matrix with a drug-like admiration, comparing it to very intense and even psychedelic sensation. Case directly says that drugs were “like a run in the matrix” after consuming one, making a direct connection between the two. After having sex with his female partner in crime, Molly, he imagines, “his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space,” and immediately compares it to “a vastness like the matrix” (pg. 33 Gibson, 1984). When Case does finally plug into the matrix and leave his body, the reader is told that the matrix “flowered for him” into a “transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity” that opened up his “inner eye” to the data around him (pg. 52 Gibson, 1984). All these descriptions leading up to Case finally jacking into the matrix makes it out to be an amazing experience that enlightens the user and creates psychedelic images like those of drugs. Comparing this disembodiment to that of drugs makes it seem immensely attractive and great considering that there seems to be no downside to “jacking in” (unless you try breaking into an AI). Such a high opinion of leaving one’s body downplays the disadvantages brought up by Dreyfus and enhances the difficulties of living in a body. Case is never subjected to lasting physical harm while in the matrix. The only pain comes when he switches to experience the pain of Molly’s body through a program called “simstim” as well as when he exits the matrix in space to endure Space Adaptation Syndrome. Rather than trying to, “confront the world [Case is] thrown into,” he refuses, “to live in a way that accepts and incorporates…vulnerability without despair” as Dreyfus suggests one should do (pg. 97 Dreyfus, 2009). Leaving the pains of the body to experience amazing visuals and feelings poses the disembodiment of the matrix as very alluring.

                Case rejects his body as often as possible to jack into the matrix; following disembodiment like a drug that Hubert Dreyfus suggests can’t lead to healthy or prosperous ends. When reality turns Case into a run down, suicidal drunk, only leaving his body brings about a euphoria that revives the life he had. Case experiences a longing for this psychedelic wonderland that is reminiscent of the drugs he takes to make up for not being able to connect into the matrix. Such obsessing over disembodiment puts the ideals of Gibson in conflict with the idea of Dreyfus that disembodiment does not bring a content life. Case finds, “a calling that…results in a life of enduring commitment” to hacking in a world without bodily limits (pg. 106 Dreyfus, 2009). One could say that this is irrelevant in an age where the internet still doesn’t allow us to be removed from our bodies, but such a case could be seen in the near future. Gibson bases his matrix of the future off of today’s technology noting that, “the matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games” (pg. 51 Gibson, 1984). Once video games and computers have created the ability for a matrix that can remove ones consciousness from a limited body, it could offer a drug like experience that elates the individual like Case, or send it in a depressing spiral as prophesized by Dreyfus. Just as a drug has drawbacks, Case struggles in reality without his “matrix drug,” suggesting that matrix may be so absorbing that it does actually pull us away from bodily reality. Even if Dreyfus is wrong about ones misery through disembodiment, the drug-like nature of Case and the matrix reminds us that embracing disembodiment too much could pull us away from the reality we survive in.

Works Cited
Dreyfus, Hubert L. On The Internet. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009. Print.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. London: Penguin, 1984. Print.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Beginning with addiction is effective. I'm not sure about your reading of Dreyfus, though. He doesn't disagree that virtual worlds are attractive - he just thinks they're attractive for problematic and destructive reasons, because they make us retreat from real engagement (risk), rather than pursuing it. Quoting Dreyfus more nimbly is what you needed to either convince me or to reveal that your reading of him is problematic. When you write "This idea of being trapped in the body directly conflicts with the idea that the unique, “emotional and intuitive capacities of [the] body,” that Dreyfus says people can’t live without (pg. 5 Dreyfus, 2009).", you're clearly in treacherous territory - Dreyfus thinks that virtual lives are *failures* not that they don't exist and not that they don't have their attractions.

Your discussion of the various ways in which Case rejects the body are quite good and detailed (e.g. - how he understands sex through cyberspace, rather than the other way around, as we might expect!). I don't see in any way, though, how Case's love of this life contradicts Dreyfu's belief that a disembodied life is, in a Heideggarian sense, untrue or inauthentic.

"Even if Dreyfus is wrong about ones misery through disembodiment, the drug-like nature of Case and the matrix reminds us that embracing disembodiment too much could pull us away from the reality we survive in." Here's the way I'd explain it: Dreyfus isn't interested in a pleasurable life so much as a good life, and his critique of disembodiment (explicitly invoking Plato, especially) has a lot to do with ethics: can we live a life worth living when disembodied?

Personally, I'd argue that your detailed analysis of the drug-like pleasures of cyberspace is very much in line with Dreyfus - it's only a problematic reading of Dreyfus which makes you think otherwise Id' be very interested in seeing a revision of this which would be rooted in a re-reading of Dreyfus...