Where are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?
The aesthetics and politics of the genre shadow a harsh reality: there might not have been all that much “punk” there to begin with.
All Cyberpunk 2077 images courtesy CD Projekt Red
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Cyberpunk 2077 looms on the horizon, and its E3 2018 trailer and closed-doors gameplay demos for press ignited a conversation across video games about what cyberpunk is. Many people hold out that there is some kind of originary, “pure” cyberpunk ideal that is more than the neon lights and robot arms that populate a lot of our cyberpunk games. At the heart, some people hold out for the politics of the “punk” of cyberpunk that existed before, and against, the latter-day stapling of Blade Runner umbrellas and droning soundtracks into any old movie or game. Is Cyberpunk 2077 just slamming first-person gaming mechanics into a comfortable production design? Have we been robbed of the true politics of the console cowboy now that they’re everywhere?
But the reality is that there might not have been all that much “punk” there to begin with.
If there’s an “original” cyberpunk moment, it is probably the publication of William Gibson’s Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award winning Neuromancer in 1984. Jammed into the early 1980s with Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982), Escape From New York (1981), Videodrome (1983), Akira (1982), and a whole host of other post-1970s works, Gibson’s novel was a part of a wave of science fiction that focused in on a couple tendencies in media at the time. A focus on these tendencies, I think, is what helps a coherent cluster of ideas called “cyberpunk” emerge.
The first is about the relationship between the individual, technology, and their society. Neuromancer follows two characters, Case and Molly. Case is a hacker, the kind who slips behind the technological walls and borders that most people don’t know exist. Molly is a fixer and an assassin whose nails, skin, and glands have been weaponized against the world around her. They’re two out of millions of freelancers who use technology to interface with, and rewrite, the laws of the near-future world that they live in.
The second is that power accrues power. The major corporations of Neuromancer are eternal entities that create products and usurp nations beneath them. There’s no question that the families, megacorps, and crime organizations that rule the world will continue to do so forever. If power accrues power, then there’s less available for everyone else, and Neuromancer (and all of those works I mentioned above) suggest that the best thing a person can do is just try to get by. You might seize a little power, and you might unseat a villain, but the vast structure of power is going to kick your ass no matter what. Take the money and run, but a vat-grown Yakuza assassin is probably going to get you eventually.
The latter half of the 20th century was, to put it bluntly, a nightmare for many people. The Cold War was playing out worldwide with drastic and violent effects for countries all over the globe in no small part due to both open and covert operations by the United States and the Soviet Union. Nationalism reigned in many countries, often to genocidal ends. In the United States, progressive movements won strong victories before being disempowered and abandoned by the politicians that had been elected to represent them. Economic devastation ran rampant through the 1970s, American power appeared to be waning, and some form of hot war seemed to loom.
As Dante Douglas writes over at Paste, “Early, seminal cyberpunk novels and short stories of the 1980s saw the future as a bleak one, populated by megacorporate structures that would eventually dwarf the nations that birthed them.” In this vast network of connection and the accrual of power, what could one person do? Deckard’s questions about humanity, Molly Million’s augmentations for survival, and Snake Plissken's absolute nihilism emerge out of this mire. People are small. They’re crushed by nuclear powers, the Vietnam War, economic insecurity, and globalized markets.
Mixed with a healthy dose of influences from science fiction’s New Wave and predecessors like Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick, cyberpunk is the ultimate blender of anxieties about the back half of the 20th century. It’s melancholic, but it’s hopeful for the individual. Winning elections isn’t in the cards, but burning a local mob boss and making a little cash? That’s doable.
So what, then is the relationship between aesthetics and politics in cyberpunk? Even if we cast off the influential films, the novels are filled with decks that allow hackers to fly through cyberspace, drones controlled by devious multinational corps, cybernetic implants, rotting locales, neomodern space stations, and a whole host of wondrous images that demand we pay close attention.
A robot arm is rarely a robot arm; it’s also the byproduct of a nation or a corporation blasting you with a cutting laser. The worlds of cyberpunk works are visually split, and how their places and people look and relate to each other often tells us as much as exposition or dialogue does. Roy Batty battled Deckard in a rotting apartment while discussing the inevitability of death and the end of things. In these early cyberpunk works, the aesthetics aren’t just wallpaper, they’re often doing the work.
Cyberpunk emerges at a moment directly after the acceleration of finance capital, wherein economic growth becomes about the number of transactions you can oversee, not about the actual objects you produce. Capitalism became more flashy, but for many people in the countries where cyberpunk originated, the factories that once signaled economic growth disappeared. The machinery of economics became invisible.
And things begin to spin out through the coked-up hedonism investment banking craze of the 1980s. This is the culture that produces Patrick Batemans and Jordan Belforts. This is the world of the freelancer, the jet-setter, the individual who bounces from consultancy to investment banking to an academic post without a pause between them. Whatever you can make of yourself comes down to ingenuity and where you find yourself in the great economic machine. Neoliberalism, the economic principles of pure individualism paired with an utter demolishing of public works and a concept of the public good, reigns.
There’s no difference between appearances and substance here.
There’s no difference between appearances and substance here. Everyone is atomized into individuals, and there’s no way of going back. You’re only in it for yourself, even if you’re a part of a group, because at the end of the day you can only trust you. Politics and aesthetics are the same, and it’s that way because neither of them lead anywhere. The “lesson” of those original cyberpunk works is that you might get away with the money, but if you do, then you’re going solo. The alleys are dark and the neon casts purple shadows. You’re going to have to take care of that robot arm on your own. Better get good at micromechanics.
The science fiction critic Darko Suvin once said that the ideal cyberpunk reader should be “a kind of global media expert” who lives “on the basis of multinational capitalist prosperity. They are against it, but they are inside the system; and the system does not allow you to see its workings.”
As I said above, the aesthetics and the politics of cyberpunk are deeply entwined, and yet we still have a cultural investment in knocking down works that use the aesthetics in a “wrong” way. And I wonder if our dreams of splitting the atom of politics and aesthetics, of figuring out which cyberpunk works get it right, is cover for not having to reconcile that liberation and oppression are two sides of the same coin in that originary moment of cyberpunk. Sure, you might be able to make yourself into the small business owner of your dreams, but there is no hope for large, structural change at the moment of cyberpunk’s birth.
It’s so much easier to fight about canonicity and the “right” version of the genre that we love than to confront the fact that maybe its origination point is one that disempowers us, dares us not to dream, and actively works to keep us justifying the dystopia instead of collectively working to build something new.
In 1992, during the handover decade of both cyberpunk and the fall of the Berlin Wall, academic Nicola Nixon had some negative thoughts about cyberpunk and what it prepared us for. What if the console cowboys and the razor girls were not figures we should emulate? What it they’re just Reaganite cowboys and heroes going through the 1980s motions in trench coats?
“The conflation of aesthetic appreciation and good politics,” she wrote, “surfaces, in certain critics, as a form of leftist wish fulfillment; that, in other words, if one likes the fiction, it must necessarily involve the articulation of a perceptible, revolutionary project.”
Her haunting thoughts from nearly 30 years ago should give us pause when we debate about whether a cyberpunk video game “gets it right.” Getting it right, when it comes to those original cyberpunk projects, might have been a lesson in talking about what was never really there.
By the late 1980s, these fragments of proto-cyberpunk were fully declared as a genre, and what some call a glut and what others might call a blossoming occurred. The street finds its own uses for things; people picked up the tools that those early cyberpunk works put out them and ran with them.
That looks like the tabletop games of Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, both of which ask players to work through embodying vulnerable, augmented characters in a bleak world. And, maybe, there could be happy endings for those characters. Ghost In The Shell extrapolated cyberpunk to the absolute limit, indicting our traditional ideas about the body and the self. And in the ensuing thirty years, we’ve both seen the rise of postcyberpunk and solarpunk as ways of creating that explicitly engage with those same core themes of humans, tech, and the power that emanates when those things have smashed into each other. Rani Baker’s essay on how cyberpunk tabletop games figure trans life is emblematic of how cyberpunk treats basically everything that is beyond its original purview: it allows for opportunities, but often fails in explaining or framing them in ways that are truly forward thinking.
Cyberpunk has a history that stretches back more than 40 years, and whenever it appears, we inevitably step into the same old debates about what cyberpunk “means” and if the new work got it “right.” It’s a lost cause; the originary moment of cyberpunk is wholly compromised politically, written for the jet setters among us who loathe the machine they work within, and cannot imagine a broad structural change. The aesthetics are the politics, but people have managed to augment them and bend them toward goals that aren’t nihilistic and defeatist, but abandon the “original” cyberpunk and what it “meant” to do something different and new entirely.
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