writing culture and cyberpunk

The picture is a clipping from a photography by Martha G. Tyler, which served as a frontispiece in 'Writing Culture' (Clifford & Marcus 1986). It shows 'Stephen Tyler in the field,' concentrated on his writing, looking away from the world, and shielding his eyes from the light by a kerchief stuffed beneath the earpiece of his matte black mirrorshades.

The above picture is a clipping from a photography by Martha G. Tyler, which served as a frontispiece in ‘Writing Culture’ (Clifford & Marcus 1986). It shows Stephen Tyler in the field’, concentrated on his writing, looking away from the world, and shielding his eyes from the light by a kerchief stuffed beneath the earpiece of his matte black mirrorshades ;-)

Evans-Pritchard allegedly once voiced that anthropology was not so much a science, but an art. Hortense Powdermaker stated that the anthropologist had no instrument, that she was her instrument herself. She did not think in terms of measuring instruments, but had musical instruments on her mind. The anthropologist has to tune herself until she is in resonance with the people she strives to understand. With ‘Writing Culture’ (Clifford & Marcus 1986) the critique of ethnographic practice, a critique which developed since the 1960s, culminated. But ‘Writing Culture’ was more than ‘the mere demystification of past dominant conventions of representations. Rather, such a critique legitimates experimentation and a search for options in research and writing activity’. (Marcus 1986: 263) Experimentation and a diversity of writing projects was encouraged. The unveiling of ethnographies as being tales, narratives, literature, even fiction in a way, encouraged anthropologists to self-consciously produce exactly that. The call was to transgress ‘conservative exercise’ and ‘straightforward analytical and descriptive account[s] from fieldwork’. (Marcus 1986: 265) It was a challenge to produce literature. A special kind of literature, a new genre, the post-modern ethnography—its literary-ness most radically described by Stephen Tyler:

A post-modern ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration that will have a therapeutic effect. It is, in a word, poetry—not in its textual form, but in its return to the original context and function of poetry, which, by means of its performative break with everyday speech, evoked memories of the ethos of the community and thereby provoked hearers to act ethically. (Tyler 1986: 125-126)
    No, it [post-modern ethnography] is not surrealism. It is the realism of the commonsense world, which is only surreal in the fictions of science and in the science of fiction. (Tyler 1986: 137)
    An ethnography is a fantasy, but it is not, like these, a fiction, for the idea of fiction entails a locus of judgement outside the fiction, whereas an ethnography weaves a locus of judgement within itself, and that locus, that evocation of reality, is also a fantasy. (Tyler 1986: 139)

Cyberpunk literature and movies are works of fiction, but not of science fiction in the ordinary sense. They are a form of social critique in the shape of noir tales and narratives of dystopian near-futures, “typically drawn from what the authors consider to be the logical outcomes of present day”. (Collins 2002: 97)

Cyberpunk’s ‘credible’ near-futures are recognizably extrapolated from those present trends that reflect the current corporate monopoly on power and wealth: the magnification of the twotier society, the technocolonization of the body, the escalation of the pace of ecological collapse, and the erosion of civil society, public space, popular democracy, and the labor movement (Ross 1991: 152, cf. Collins 2002: 97).

There is a canon of central themes always resurfacing in cyberpunk texts. The most striking is the relationship between humans and technology, the impact of technology on society, culture, and humankind at large, up to the fusion of human and machine, the ‘technocolonisation’ of the body, by means of genetics and cybernetics, which poses the question “What is human?” ever anew.
    It is supposed that the continual spread and access to information is of crucial importance for the ongoings within the contemporary world, culminating to a blurring of the virtual with the real. Hence particularly media and surveillance technologies, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are featured prominently, as speech and language are seen as the central dominating forces of control in society—society controlled by totalitarian elites, be they transnational corporations or nation-states, regardless of the latter being of socialist, capitalist, or any other coinage: “The technological devices used by the elite in cyberpunk are built primarily for the purpose of social control, and as such, the technology becomes a symbol of the loss of individual sovereignty.” (Collins 2004)

But cyberpunk always focusses on the underground of society, the perspective is always that of the oppressed. Within the sprawl, the living space of the urban populace, there are pockets of resistance, sub-worlds created within the oppressive system. Street-smart groups who fight the hyper-commercialised corporate oligarchy.
    Cyberpunk does not naively strive to expose the dangers of the growing technologisation of society, but decidedly stresses human creativity, the ability of culturally appropriating globally spreading technology, commodities, and ideas:

Technology in cyberpunk is also viewed as potentially liberating, however, and is often appropriated by the resistance movement to their own benefit […] the technology used by the resistance is often the cast-off older technology rather than the latest high-tech products […]. In light of the neophilia of consumerism, it is significant that the resistance does not choose (or cannot choose) the latest technology. The appropriation of older, particularly low technology for its use in the resistance is a theme running throughout cyberpunk […, see ↵lo tek nexus]. Cyberpunk, therefore, has an arguably ambiguous relationship to technology itself. It is often through the metaphor of technology that we are led to a realisation that it is not technology that is at fault, it is the way in which it has been employed that enslaves humankind. (↵Collins 2004)

‘The street finds its own uses for things.’—this aphorism by William Gibson, the godfather of cyberpunk, not only contains the concept of cultural appropriation, but hints to another trait cyberpunk has in common with contemporary anthropology: The focus on the street-level, the grassroots, and everyday life. Where the real things happen.
    Accordingly ‘cyberpunk visuals, ideally, are dirty, hyper-realistic “lived in” looks at the near future.’ (Sfam 2006) But not only the social realities of urban decay, crime, violence and drug use are picked up as themes, but also contemporary society’s pervadedness by ‘low-culture’, mass or popular media items. There are countless references to popular culture within cyberpunk texts. Daniel Miller forcefully argued ‘that the study of consumption and commodities represents a major transformation in the discipline of anthropology.’ (Miller 1995: 141) Quite matching in ‘cyberpunk fiction commodity culture is integrated throughout the novel as it is in our everyday life.’ (Collins 2004)
    I am going to quote Tyler once more. Not merely to show that he has read ‘Neuromancer’ (Gibson 1984) [with ‘Neuromancer’ the cyberpunk-movement’s products started to be seen as forming a genre], but to state my disagreement with his opinion on cyberpunk as he voices it in Vile Bodies—a mental machination (Tyler 1993):

This is not to say that the relatively dystopic present will be replaced by an absolutely dystopic future as envisioned by Gibson (1984) and other science fiction writers and film makers. These apocalyptic visions—in spite of their seeming departures from standard textualization and cinematography—are little more than bad digests of the Book of Revelations, including even its obscurities of emplotment and character motivation. They do not, in other words, portend innovative reflections of Cyborg sensitivity and sensibility; they are little more than predictable works of modernist transgression that, at best, merely repeat, with heavy-handed pretentiousness, the eschatology, the themes, and textual imperatives of the inventio they purport to transgress. The rhetoric of techno-science and of its redundant surrogate, science fiction, is boringly predictable.

To me a lot of elements and story-twists within cyberpunk literature is not ‘boringly predictable’ but frighteningly re-recognizable. The reader is confronted with well-known elements of everyday life and of the contemporary world at large. Extrapolated, brought to the point by hyperbole, but still all too well re-recognizable. Furthermore I re-recognize a plethora of issues sociocultural anthropology meanwhile has taken up—see above or anthropology’s shades .
    Honestly, I do not get why Tyler takes cyberpunk to be boring—maybe due to a lack of ‘ethnographic tension’? According to the cyberpunk writers’ own testimony they were a ‘generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction but in a truly science-fictional world.’ (Sterling 1986) They lived in the world they described, and especially in this world’s underground. They themselves were a part of the underground which so prominently is belaboured and interpreted in their works. Therefore their texts may well lack “ethnographic tension”—the tension which arises out of the ethnographer’s confrontation with the culturally non-understood.
    The ways of the writer-writer and of the writer-anthropologist are not the same, for sure, but close, and ultimately leading to similar goals: To an understanding of contemporary culture and society, and to critique. Quite naturally the cyberpunk-writer openly uses literary devices to achieve this goal. At the latest since ‘Writing Culture’ the anthropologist has to openly use literary devices as well—because they are inescapable.
    Like ethnography, cyberpunk is grounded upon the observation of the empirical world. The cyberpunk-writer’s observation and interpretation are not methodologically backed-up, like the anthropologist’s should be. They are the artist’s intuitive, and sometimes eclectical observation and interpretation. The artist’s attempt at getting in resonance with people, culture, and society.
    Still cyberpunk is fiction—but ethnography in a way as well. Nevertheless there are crucial differences, e.g. the author’s horizon of experience has not to be hidden within an ethnography. Powdermaker’s instrument has to be made visible, the reader must be enabled to follow every tune when the instrument is pitched anew. The people described within an ethnography have met the author—so shall the reader.
    Within his ‘Engaging Anthropology’ (Eriksen 2006) Thomas Hylland Eriksen has thought about the reader, too:

The philosopher A. R. Louch once infamously intimated that anthropology was just bad travel writing (Louch 1966); just as his near-namesake Edmund Leach once remarked that all anthropologists were failed novelists. Every self-respecting anthropologist would oppose this view and point out, perfectly reasonably, that anthropology raises the issues at hand in a much more accurate way than any travel writer would be able to, that it is by far more systematic and conscientious in its presentation of the events and statements of people that form the basis for generalisation, and so on. On the other hand, considering the professional skepticism of many contemporary anthropologists, who eschew the word ‘science’, relinquish explicit comparison and are disdainful of anything that smacks of human universals, a good travelogue might well pass for an ethnography today. In principle, that is; it does not seem to happen very often in practice.
    The scarcity of readable, personal, anthropological travelogues is puzzling. It seems that just as anthropologists excel in the study of other people’s rituals but are inept at organising and immersing themselves in their own rituals, and just as anthropologists have waxed lyrical about ‘narratives’ for two decades without offering many juicy narratives themselves, all the elements of the personal travelogue are present in the contemporary credo of post-positivist anthropology, yet they are rarely brought to fruitition. Contemporary social and cultural anthropology is anti-scientistic and concerned with positioning and reflexivity. […]
    Even the most personal monographs of recent years and in the English language, executed in a spirit of ‘experimental writing’ (pace Marcus and Fischer 1986) and often portraying only a handful of informants, tend to be peppered with jargon and metatheoretical discussions […].

Cyberpunk is engaged and its juicy. Let’s engage anthropology, and let’s write juicy narratives. Not quite cyberpunk—let’s write cyberanthropology.
    Let’s don matte black mirrorshades and walk the path to the light.

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