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<nettime> Thoughts on "Fear and Loathing in Globalization"
Brandon Keim on Fri, 19 Sep 2003 06:16:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Thoughts on "Fear and Loathing in Globalization"

Et tu, William? / Thoughts on "Fear and Loathing in Globalization"

keywords: William Gibson, Fredric Jameson, Bruce Sterling, A Perfectly
Proportioned Afternoon in Autumn

see: http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR25706.shtml

Nettime fans of William Gibson will be pleased to note that he -- and, to a
lesser extent, Bruce Sterling and cyberpunk/sci-fi in general -- are the
subject of a Fredric Jameson discourse in the September/October issue of New
Left Review.

It is appropriate that such scholarly attention be lavished upon Gibson's
latest work, Pattern Recognition, for it is a fine and serious effort; a
novel in the classic sense, a welcome addition to that growing body of work
whose authors who have finally been accorded overdue respect as observers of
the human condition rather than one-dimensional technological fantasists.

However, Jamieson's reading of Pattern Recognition, and the genres in which
Gibson and Sterling are classified, is hasty and incomplete.  (That being
said, I have read Pattern Recognition only once, several months ago, and my
mind is not as attuned to Jameson's academese as it was several years ago;
perhaps some of the criticisms to follow are rooted in my own
misunderstandings and haste.  But such is life.  Selah.)

In Jameson's first paragraph, he wonders whether Gibson in Pattern
Recognition "is moving closer to the 'cyberpunk' with which he is often
associated"; in the next paragraph, he remarks that Gibson "has certainly
more often illustrated that other coinage, 'cyberspace', and its inner
network of global communication and information" -- i.e., the traditional
architecture of cyberpunk -- "than the object world of late commodification
through which the latest novel carefully gropes its way."  Shortly we are
informed that, along with Sterling's works -- which "derive as much from
global entrepreneurship, and the excitement of the money to be made, as from
paranoia" -- these are in fact a "Hunter-Thompsonian global tourism".

Hence the title of Jameson's article:  "Fear and Loathing in Globalization".
Anyone familiar with Thompson's large ouevre will be hard pressed to link in
any way the pioneer of Gonzo journalism with Sterling and Gibson; even in
Thompson's most famous invocation of Fear and Loathing, the story of a
Sixties-style drug binge in Las Vegas at the height of Nixon's power,
neither world-view, nor atmosphere, nor style, or even content, is even
remotely similar to   the fictions of Gibson and Sterling.  "New
geopolitical material" is hardly, as Jameson posits, the only difference
between these authors.

>From such garbled beginnings, Jameson muddles his way through Pynchon --
that watered-down academic version of Burroughs, whose absence here is
glaring -- towards an analysis of Pattern Recognition's central conflict:
purity versus commodification.  Gibson's latest protagonist, Cayce Pollard,
is a trend-hunter, an identifier of what is about to be cool, who points
companies -- the commodifiers -- at what has yet to be commodified.  At the
same time, Pollard abhors the product of her efforts.  Her fastidious
attention to her every article of clothing -- Gibson's descriptions of which
Jameson accurately characterizes as a discrete style, composed of brand
name-dropping and intelligible only to the initiated consumer -- is coupled
with a rigid insistence on scouring them of all labels and logos.  In her
love of craftsmanship and scorn of the derived, Pollard in her personal life
has transcended the system of branding which is the defining feature of
consumerism -- yet she remains a very active part of that system.

Gibson's articulation of the process of commodification is perhaps the most
refined such description yet produced by literature.  Commendable too is his
chronicling of the strata in which Western  producers of culture orbit.
(Here I think of the producer of a reality TV show I met this spring; a
devotee of Foucault, and an avowed neo-Marxist, he refused to admit that in
his professional capacities he contributed to the status quo).  But while
Gibson waxes poetic about the virtues of fine craftsmanship, he completely
ignores the manufacturing process behind most of the world's consumer goods
particularly the garments which form so much of his narrative.
Sweatshops, feudalistic owner-worker relations, de facto slavery -- it is as
if these donıt exist.  Cayce Pollard may be thrown into fits of nausea by
the terrible unoriginality of a Tommy Hilfiger shirt -- but there are other
reasons, far more tangible, for disgust:  the possibility that one of the
women who sewed the shirt was beaten for using the toilet without
permission, deprived of food for missing a stitch, forced to watch her house
burned and family tortured after she asked for a raise or wore a fair-trade

I do not mean to suggest that every work of art has to be one of social or
political conscience.  That would be tyranny.  But for a work like Pattern
Recognition, for which the surface processes of modern production and
consumption is central, and which is certainly a novel of the immediate
moment, to completely overlook the vast human reality of modern production
and consumption, is -- by purely literary standards -- a glaring omission;
by human standards, it is nothing less than unconscionable. For a social
theorist like Jameson to overlook this is, to put it charitably, perplexing.

Jameson does, however, a fair enough job of describing the 'footage' -- a
collection of unidentified fragments and shorts by an unknown author, the
interpretation of which has spawned a subculture frightened by the prospect
of its discovery by the mainstream.  (Gibson's description of bulletin board
culture is a minor but notable accomplishment).  The footage is the object
of Pollard's most intimate -- even loving -- consciousness.  Jameson calls
it a "Utopian anticipation of a new art premised on 'semiotic neutrality.'"
'Utopian' is a careless word, as nothing in the footage or the novel implies
paradise, whether individual or social, and 'anticipation' hints at a
linearity which Gibson himself does not posit.  But the footage indeed is
premised upon semiotic neutrality.  It defies every effort at placement,
every attempt to impose an external frame of reference.

Of course, these efforts at placement are, in the larger scheme of human
experience, predicated on a very narrow perspective; it is taken for granted
that the unidentifiable world depicted by the footage is part of the
twentieth century, and Anglo to boot.  The former assumption is by far the
more important one, for the conflation of the last hundred years -- the
lifespan of historical capitalism -- with universality implies that history
has indeed ended; that the system of modern consumption and production, and
labor, has attained the status of objective reality, as unquestionable as
the sun.  

If I have any problem with Gibson's work -- not with Gibson himself, who is
an artist of the first rank, and entitled to his beliefs -- it is his tacit
acceptance of the world as it is.  This was acceptable in his earlier novels
(particularly my favorite, Count Zero, the story of a starry-eyed hacker
from the endless Eastern Seaboard sprawl).   In Pattern Recognition,
however, grounded in the Now by nothing less than the protagonistıs loss of
her father to the bombings on 9/11, it grates.  And despite Jamesonıs
tendency to see Gibson and Sterling as complementary despite their
differences, he fails to notice that the latterıs characters are usually
quite socially aware.  Sterlingıs entrepreneurial enthusiasm tends to be
reserved for those entrepreneurs and ideas which could actually make our
civilization a bit less malignant and self-destructive.

For all Gibson's cachet, his latest work might as well have been penned by
that great apologist of modern power, Francis Fukuyama, or sponsored by the
Better Business Bureau.  So it was unsurprising that Pollard hardly
hesitated when given an opportunity to track down the footage's author,
though in exchange the footage would be commodified and ultimately
cheapened.  And while Jameson may call Pattern Recognition a 'kind of
pattern recognition for Gibson, as indeed for Science Fiction generally',
readers interested in a more complete 'Science Fiction' analysis of
capitalist culture would do better to turn to the J.G. Ballard's recent
"Super-Cannes", or Jeff Noon's "Vurt" and "Nymphomation".

p.s.  Fragment which I could find no place to insert:  "The uncritical
fetishism of Japanese consumer culture, specifically that of its children
and adolescents, as practiced by Gibson, Wired magazine, and untold numbers
of people who are otherwise skeptical of consumption's Western incarnation,
is redolent of nothing so much as cheap Orientalism."


Brandon Keim
GeneWatch Editor 
Director of Communications
Council for Responsible Genetics
5 Upland Rd, Suite 3, Cambridge, MA USA 02140
Phone: (617) 868-0870 / Fax: (617) 491-5344
brandon {AT} gene-watch.org / http://www.gene-watch.org

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