Sci-Fi Digi-Porn: Anarcho Cyber-Terroism and the Evolutionary Horrorshow
An Imploding Neutron Star
As the well-known story goes, William Gibson in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, coined the terms "matrix" and "cyberspace" to designate a broad conception of the new datasphere emerging in tandem with ideas about virtual reality and global computer networks. This "matrix" was conceived as a "mass consensual hallucination" (a pun on VR synaesthesia & the fantasy that you can always opt-out of the "virtual" world back to the "real world"): a kind of metaphor machine for producing "a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…"
In Gibson’s version of the "matrix," at a certain point the critical mass of accumulated data gives rise to a kind of quantum weirdness, an autonomous evolutionary process towards ever-increasingly ubiquitous forms of AI (artificial intelligence). Like an imploding neutron star, this process has a certain ineluctable character: it occurs, with the nominal catalyst of human agency at first, more or less all by itself. Like Darwin’s biological materialism, Gibson’s "matrix" evolves with only the illusion of a grand design: AI is depicted in broadly humanistic terms, psychological and sexual, but ultimately its "purpose" is nothing but evolution itself.
At the time Neuromancer was publisher the interest in AI had been steered primarily towards robotics and gaming. Gibson’s "matrix" was more of a throwback to the sorts of ideas contemporary with Arthur C. Clark & Stanley Kubrik’s HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (released all the way back in 1968, before the software revolution that lent to Gibson’s idea a potent realism versus Clark & Kubrik’s cosmo-metaphysics). But even in 1984, the fluid code-world envisaged by Gibson remained hidden from view, somewhere between pure sci-fi & Cold War deniability—GPS was still purely military and the World Wide Web was almost a decade away, let alone all the rest of it. Like the "matrix," the public face of robotics was broadly humanistic: the problem of general intelligence had always been less about grasping what intelligence is, than in how it could be represented to humans (the curse of Turing endlessly revisited upon the "vanity of man").
In Gibson, a frequent fallback is also gender: elements of the "matrix" marry and give "birth" to more evolved forms; its processes are intersected by libidinous drives as much as by the operations of "higher reason." The basic premise here is that humanity is a catalyst for the evolution of technical artefacts emerging from a parasite-host relation towards "god-like" autonomy of purpose. "Man" in the service of the machine, but also "man" as technologically coevolving. The machine as the symbiotic means of abstraction from evolutionary (which is also to say, biologic) dependence. As humanity labours under the illusion of evolving itself, it unconsciously becomes that embryonic mass from which an ideal artificial intelligence is to be born, re-enacting its (humanity’s) own creation myth in reverse, becoming God.
This is hardly a new idea. The myth of the demiurge, the maker-of-man, and by declensions "man" the maker of golems, robots, Frankensteinian monsters…It’s the ancient dream of a detachable autonomous ego, capable of imbuing inorganic matter with the characteristics of intelligence (or "intelligent design"); a dream which, in a type of Freudian reprise to the aspirations of Reason, has always been accompanied by the perverse fantasy of the rise of the bionic genital. From the very beginning the concept of "mind" has evoked visions of bondage and ideas of subjectification that find a sexualised expression. The procedural logics of rationalism are like ritually entrained fetish scenarios: bodies as virtual hardware, stripped-out and hacked back into the collective gender cortex. If the Golem represents the crude duality of the artificial body in bondage to reason, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis establishes the aesthetic sublimation of this duality in the figure of the fetish machine.
The first thing we notice about the Golem is the immaculate nature of its conception: a thing of mud and Cabbalistic mumbo codework (the "shem" of the inseminating word-soul [the kernel] placed in its mouth; the inscription/erasure of "(e)meth" on its forehead [the halting machine]), but still immaculate, of course, motherless. Like dear darling Adam with a gausian blur in place of a navel: the original man-of-clay, the thing-as-such, das ding-an-sich, and its creator—the archetypal Frankenstein, the mad Rabbi, the monotheic ego-machine—GOD by any other name, etc. Or, like sexless Athena, born fully-fledged from the forehead of Pure Reason, armour-clad, a type of vestal-warrior in the cause of the divine calculus. The Golem is all brawn, Athena all brains: but that isn’t the be-all of this particular trope. There are other binaries: the detached autonomous phallus, for example, and the mechanised vagina; the bionic "man of the future" and the "bionic woman" or fembot, something out of pre-feminist antiquity dressed up with futuristic bells and whistles, a sex machine with dodgy thousand-year warranty (like some hydraulic vagina dentata: you get your hard-on and castration anxiety wrapped up in one package, the eternal 2-for-1).
Add them together and you end up with that most utopian of all Oedipal mummy-fantasies: intelligence, beauty & an insatiable desire to fuck. The reciprocal figure is rather less flattering, being nothing more efficacious than a mechanised human dildo: that complex bit of sublimated libido we find in Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 symbolist rendition in Der Golem, for example. Or the one we find in Thomas Pynchon’s "rocket man" in Gravity’s Rainbow. Or in the original Frankenstein (a.k.a. A Modern Prometheus). In the hands of Mary Shelley, this man-monster becomes of manifestation of its "creator’s" sexualised guilt: not simply a rampant phallus, but a reviled creature built of offended vulnerabilities; not simply a gravity-defying superman, but the apotheosis of what’s "all too (hu)man." Or, to paraphrase the Tyrell Corporation motto in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, "More (Hu)man than (Hu)man." (The [anti-] Oedipal parody of fucking the Creator [in the eye], because hopelessly longing to be fucked by the Creator—not once, but again and again [those Replicants want to be just like "us" after all].)
The phallic trajectory of this desire is a constant feature of the Golem myth. At the beginning of Meyrink’s novel, its protagonist Athenasius Pernath finds himself accidentally wearing a stranger’s hat and immediately his entire being rigidifies, becomes trancelike, guided by a convulsive tension, as if he’d been transformed into a kind of mindless prophylactic engorged with libido. This is Pernath’s "channelling" of the eponymous Golem. The French philosopher and sometimes pornographer Georges Bataille evokes a comparable trance-like experience in The Tomb of Louis XXX, where the metaphoric implications of Pernath’s state are made explicit:
I […] entered a state of torpor, wherein I suddenly felt myself become an erect penis. The intensity of my conviction rendered it difficult to deny. The previous day I had had the same kind of violent feeling, the feeling that I was a tree and, without being able to oppose the idea, in the darkness, my arms extended themselves as branches. The idea of being—my body, my head—a large hardening penis was so crazy that I felt like laughing. The comical idea even came to me that so hard an erection—the entire body tensed as a hard tail—had no other point than orgasm! 1
Seizing the Means of Production
The story of Rabbi Loew and the Golem comes to us as a retelling of the immaculate father-son progeniture of the Old Testament—the libratory fantasy of the "man-made-God" as counterpoint to that of the enslaved phallus (as a species of machine, it is imagined the genitals can be controlled, brought under the spell of organised labour, disciplined according to a schedule of productivity: a "beneficial" machine). Revisited in the technological context of the Post-Enlightenment, we can recognise in this the conventional narrative of the domination of a disembodied "Reason" over bodily/collective "libido" (for which the "reproductive" function of the genitalia is first and foremost a rationalization) mediated by this "figure" of the Golem. The autopoietic potential of the Golem-machine, to begin to think for itself, nevertheless adverts to a dilemma. Where the escaped Golem represents a nightmare scenario of the machine-as-hazard (a "mindless" slave revolt—a veritable "zombiegeddon" of disembodied genitals ranging abroad under an autonomous motive force, running amok, but essentially dumb), Lang’s Metropolis invites the viewer to imagine (quel horreur!) an industrial proletariat in process of seizing the means of production itself, in full knowledge of what it is doing: rationalism’s ultimate nightmare.
The dominant phallocentrism of this allegory invites still further critique, one whose trajectory describes a force-feedback from Metropolis to the Wachowskis’s 1999 reworking of Gibson’s "Matrix" (with its dangerously sexless, latex fetish-doll character, Trinity as the film’s token female hacker). In the mid 80s and early 90s, during that period in which the internet entered popular consciousness but hadn’t yet become the nauseatingly commodified space it is now, a new wave of artists and theorists emerged in tandem with Gibson’s fictional explorations of "cyberspace."
CYBERFEMINISM & DNA SLUTS
In 1983 Donna Haraway began writing A Cyborg Manifesto, a rejection of humanist distinctions between animal and machine, and biology and gender. The cyborg, a radical form of "theorized and fabricated" hybridisation of "machine and organism," harks back to the constellations of Deleuze and Guattari’s "desiring machines" as described in their 1972 investigation of "capitalism & schizophrenia," Anti-Oedipus. The cyborg is, in Haraway’s words, "the illegitimate offspring of militarism and paternal capitalism, not to mention state socialism." Its autonomy, however, serves to render the "paternal" inessential, in a movement that reinscribes and recodes Old Testament sublimation of the "mother." With its rejection of the paternalistic Oedipal creation myth, Haraway’s cyborg is very much the contrary of the traditional Golem figure: "The cyborg," she concludes,
does not dream of community on the model of the organic family…The cyborg would not recognise the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. 2
Emerging from this intersection of cybernetics, philosophy and gender critique, "Cyberfeminism" was a term first coined in 1991 by Sadie Smith (co-founder with Nick Land of the Cybernetic Culture Research Institute at Warwick University in the UK) and the Australian artist collective VNS Matrix (comprised of Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt). In a reply to both Gibson and Haraway, VNS Matrix published a Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, in which they set out the terms of a project for "attack[ing] the patriarchy within…its bases of power: the creation of rules for communication and the exchange of information":
WE ARE THE MODERN CUNT…THE CLITORIS IS A DIRECT LINE TO THE MATRIX…
VNS Matrix took issue with Gibson’s hypermasculinised cyberjocks and the "TRANPLANETARY MILITARY INDUSTRIAL DATA ENVIRONMENT" they were shown to inhabit, along with the highly caricatured nature of gender and ethnic types in Gibson’s "sprawl" trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive). In a review of VNS Matrix’s 1991 multimedia installation, ALL NEW GEN, code-poet and "netwurker" Mez Breeze wrote:
[Gibson’s] novels are essentially revamped detective/thriller novels, which employ weird plot divergences and characters caught up in ‘the matrix’—a term commonly interchanged for cyberspace. When a Gibson character ‘jacks into’ the matrix, donning obligatory headgear and virtual reality gloves as he does so, the cowboy (for inevitably the hero is mostly male) has to battle a corporate entity and regain his position as an information paragon. He ultimately achieves this aim, albeit in a convoluted fashion, and reinstates his own hero status. This template of the machismo cyberjock completing their own version of the traditional hero’s journey narrative is one that cyberfeminists object to, and combat within their own art practices. 3
All New Gen, in a parody of typical console games of the time—like Nintendo’s Gameboy—required the player to renounce his/her typical gender affiliation in order to access the gamespace. Logging into All New Gen, the player was first asked: "What is your gender? Male, Female, Neither." The only right answer was "Neither"—anything else would send you into a loop that ended the game. The game itself was situated within a transgendered vision of the (unmanned) future. Fighting for "data liberation" with "G-Slime" shooting from their clitorises, "cybersluts" and "anarcho cyber-terrorists" were meant to hack into the databanks of Big Daddy Mainframe, "an Oedipal embodiment of the techno-industrial complex, to sow the seeds of a New World Disorder and end the rule of phallic power." 4
Like some mindfucked, post-op Gameboy, All New Gen was populated with comically exotic analogues to the usual gaming stereotypes, including:
1. BIG DADDY MAINFRAME—the enemy who must be infiltrated through DATA LIBERATION
2. RENEGADE DNA SLUTS—who are watched over by ORACLE SNATCH. They call themselves PATINA DE PANTIES, DENTATA & THE PRINCESS OF SLIME. They must battle Big Daddy Mainframe and his agents through the contested zone in order to release the:
3. VIRUS OF THE NEW WORLD DISORDER
4. CIRCUIT BOY—a dangerous technobimbo (and one of Big Daddy Mainframe’s agents). The DNA Sluts must disarm him by removing his three dimensional detachable penis, and by doing so, turn it into a cellular phone.
5. A BONDING BOOTH – where G-SLIME (fuel required by the player) is replenished if stocks run low.
The game’s motto (echoing William Burroughs) was "BE AWARE THAT THERE IS NO MORAL CODE IN THE ZONE."
VNS Matrix’s vision of transgendered cyberspace finds echoes in the recent evolution of the Anonymous movement. The term "anonymous" is ideally keyed to the tabula rasa implied in All New Gen’s "neither," in which "hacker" avatars are free to occupy a gender "interstice," despite the prevailing machismo of "hacker" culture. Writing on the genesis of Anonymous and Lulszec (and with echoes of the case of Private Bradley/Chelsea Manning), Parmy Olson noted this "contradiction" with regard to a seeming prevalence of real-life transgendering among long-term habitués of sites like 4chan:
There was not much research on hackers who were trans but plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting the number of transgender people regularly visiting 4chan or taking part in hacker communities was disproportionately high. One reason may have been that as people spent more time in these communities and experimented with "gender bending" online, they could more easily consider changing who they were in the real world. Lines between the online and offline selves could become blurred, and some people in these communities were known to talk about gender as just another thing to "hack on" … If people were already used to customising a machine or code, they might have come to see their own bodies as the next appealing challenge, especially if they already felt uncomfortable with the gender they were born with.5
Hacking, as a term for a type of cyborg/sexual insurgency, recodes the MATRIX ("WOMB") according to the overriding insistence that "Biology is not Destiny." The "matrix" is trans-sexed in the same way as the body is prosthetically reorganised. And just as the body itself gets reconceived as a prosthesis of the "matrix" (rather than vice-versa), so gender gets conceived "prosthetically" as a distributed network of codes. The trans-hack is always/already reappropriated to the Matrix.
Contemporary with VNS Matrix is the work of Australian artist Linda Dement. Dement’s Cyberflesh Girlmonster installation at the 1995 Adelaide Festival depicted "bodies that matter" as re-coded in a macabre Frankensteinian comedy of gender panic. The artist invited 30 women to "donate" parts of their bodies, which were scanned to create both visual & auditory analogues. From these, conglomerate "bodies" were assembled, animated and made interactive, becoming part of an ongoing morphological process. But perhaps one of the most radical and insistent exponents of interactive body-transformation is the performance artist Stelarc. Since the 80s, Stelarc has explored the possibilities of human cybernetics in a series of dramatic works, from the robotic third-arm prostheses of Evolution and Ping-Body, to the actual surgical implantation of a "third ear" in his left forearm in 1997. His most striking work, however, is a 2005 collaboration with Nina Sellars, entitled Blender.
For Blender both artists undertook liposuction operations, using the resultant bio-materials as the substance of an installation piece: 1.6 metres high and "anthropormorphic" in scale and structure. Every few minutes Blender automatically circulated or "blended" these bio-materials via a system of compressed air pumps and a pneumatic actuator. The mixture included 4.6 litres of subcutaneous fat taken from Stelarc’s torso and Nina Sellars’ limbs, zylocain (local anaesthetic), adrenalin, O+ blood, sodium bicarbonate, peripheral nerves, saline solutions and connective tissue. Installed under a single spotlight & swathed in chiaroscuro, Blender was also wired for sound, amplifying, distorting and delaying the audio produced by the blending mechanism itself. The project (which has its contemporary analogue in the Tissue Culture & Art Project of Oran Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary) was an inevitable outcome of Stelarc and Sellars’ longstanding fascination with "alternative corporeal architectures" and the blending of contemporary technology with corporeality, dressed-up in the mystique of the divine melodrama of creation (the work itself resembles some sort of cryogenic altarpiece, the sacred relics in process of re-becoming, God by unholy alchemical transmutations about to rise from the dead).
Underlying this drama, Blender reprises the dream (or nightmare) of inanimate matter (body waste, effluvia, G-slime) made animate by means not of the Divine Word but of some (diabolical) apparatus injected with code. The vision of God as abomination; the Resurrection as horrorshow. Like growing a brain in a jar, or a foetus, or conjuring a new species from an evolutionary cyberswamp – a "matrix" of mutated cell-structures becoming the 3D-printed armature of a future (malevolent!) artificial intelligence, perhaps. (Megumi Igarashi’s coded vagina invading the internet like some sort of porno-viral space monster, replicating itself endlessly in the flesh.) In short, a succubus machine. If the Golem belonged to an allegory of the productive harnessing of the formless, of the ordering of chaos, of creation as work, it also pointed "ahead" to a general evolutionary potential – one far removed from the sublime conception of a transcendental nicety (the ever-benevolent "god machine"). Instead there is only the radical materiality of transmissional codes, the reproductive potential of form detached from "evolutionary purpose" – which is also to say, the potential of (an) agency that resembles us only insofar as we remain integrated into its circuit.
- 1. Georges Bataille, Louis XXX, trans. Stuart Kendall (London: Equus, 2014) 67.
- 2. Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991) 150; 151.
- 3. Mez Breeze, "Attack of the Cyberfeminists," Switch. Electronic Gender: Art at the Interstice (1997).
- 4. Claire L. Evans, “‘We Are the Future Cunt’: CyberFeminism in the 90s,” Motherboard (November, 2014).
- 5. Olson, Parmy. We are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of Lulzsec, Anonymous & the Global Cyber Insurgency (New York: Little, Brown, 2012) chap 6.
Louis Armand is the Director of the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. His books include The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture After the AvantGarde (2013) and the novel Breakfast at Midnight (2011; described by 3:AM Magazine’s Richard Marshall as "a perfect modern noir").
© 2015 Louis Armand, used by permission