2007年08月27日 月曜日

Cyberpunk and Techno-Orientalism

by Mizuko Ito

Features, Movies

This is the second in a three part series on Cyberpunk by Mike Dillon. Part One is here.


Cyberpunk literature is written by and written for a generation that occupies “a truly science-fictional world” (Sterling 1986, xi), producing work that is immersed in technology and pop cultural values “associated with the drug culture, punk rock, video games, Heavy Metal comic books, and […] gore-and-splatter SF/horror films” (Carroll 1990). No country has experienced as internationally recognized a technological quantum leap as Japan, and with the recent surge in desire for Japanese popular culture, it appears that associating the genre, whose myths and narratives, in the modern era, have primarily been of American hegemony (Morris 1997), explicitly with Japan is not only viable, but increasingly necessary. But a closer look at the attitudes toward Japanese animation reveals some fascinating ironies.

A significant degree of the Japanese cyberpunk ideology aligns itself with “techno-orientalism” (Morley and Robins 1995) which maps such fears directly onto a Japanese context. The term, which describes “an Othering of Japan by the West that sees it only as technological dystopia (Napier 2001, 24) is, to an extent, a dead-on description of Japan – as represented by the cyberpunk genre. This is odd, given that the fascination toward and the appeal of cyberpunk is precisely the internationality of its themes. In other words, within the context of this specific genre, techno-orientalism indicates that “what [cyberpunk seems] to consume is not merely Japan, but their own science fiction projected in the future called Japan” (Tastumi 1991, 372)Even in Gibson’s Neuromancer, there is even “a geopolitical or perhaps geoeconomical and psychological logic, in his choosing such ‘nipponizing’ vocabulary” (Darko 1991, 353)

Some of the fears that arise within the genre are famous and obvious; it is a genre that traditionally depicts “a fallen humanity controlled by a technology run amok” (Hollinger in in McCaffery 2991, 353). Japan occupies a unique position within the genre given its position as a leader in technology and invention; the contradictory resistance it shows is against the future it is actively creating. The prevalence of mecha bodies (short for mechanical), while acting as the basic and most predominant of cyberpunk imagery, “clearly plays to a wish-fulfilling fantasy of power, authority, and technological competence” (Napier 2001, 86). Even The Matrix, despite its sincere efforts to stand as a cautionary tale about mankind’s negligent dependence on technology, nevertheless falls prey to “[glorifying] the computer as the ultimate wish-fulfillment machine” (Haber 2003, 221). It is a perpetual fetish-feeder that assumes an audience attracted to a lifestyle in which they can defy gravity, download encyclopedic knowledge within seconds, and gain instant and limitless access to “guns, lots of guns,” all the while dressed like “regal, kinky aristocrats” (Sterling 1986, 21). The truth behind the Matrix may be biomechanical torment, but the surface sure glistens. The point is this: if Japan, on some subconscious level, didn’t fear the machine, it would never have its corner in cyberpunk culture. On the other hand, it would have nothing to fear from the machines if they weren’t so damn good at making them.

Another typical genre concern involves the massive hegemonic power of heartless corporations who leave the world in the dust in pursuit of greater profit margins. Consider Blade Runner, set in LA circa 2019, when “the godlike Tyrell Corporation, an unholy alliance of science and capitalism, has turned the world into the equivalent of a pig sty” (Morris 1997). The innovations of the future don't create leisure or pleasure in this cramped, commerce-driven world. Tyrell's inventions seem frivolously self-indulgent, as in its creation of quasi-human "replicants"; or anti-human, as laser guns and flying cars are used mainly to oppress and kill the citizenry (Morris 1997). Similarly, virtually every cyberpunk story features some nefarious and omnipresent entity – sometimes unseen – referred to tentatively as “the System” or “the Corporation” that looms over the narrative. Japanese corporate-yakuzas, cold, inhuman, and often “the figure of empty and dehumanized technological power” (Morley and Robins 1995), are so commonplace in cyberpunk literature that it has become genre iconography; it may not be entirely fair, but it reveals important clues vis-à-vis attempting to identify what cultural preconceptions are being coupled with the larger thematic issues present in the literature. Is the reason Japanese cyberpunk is so successful worldwide because Japanese society has technologically set itself up to be so, or because it reinforces certain prejudices the West has concerning Japan as a scientific haven/hellscape?

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2007年08月27日 05:04

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