Countering cyber desire

John Conomos reviews Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity (Hodder and Stoughton)

Mark Dery’s perceptively written Escape Velocity is a welcome addition to the growing list of new media publications. It is unique on a number of aesthetic, cultural and technological fronts. Most significantly, it is a comprehensive overview of computer culture, incisively x-raying the myths of the many different digital subcultures that constitute techno-culture more broadly. In this critical sense, Dery’s book is a first: nowhere else (in book form) will the reader encounter the complex historical, mythic and cultural configurations of the cyber-hippies, New Agers, techno-pagans, Extropians, rogue technologists and so on—groups which have substantially contributed to our wired world of ‘terminal identity’ (Scott Bukatman). Dery has done his vital historical spadework, and this is one of the book’s more enduring accomplishments.

In an era where much of the critical writing on digital media is marked by a problematic ahistorical emphasis, Escape Velocity critiques the ‘context-free’ metaphysics of new media literature. Dery searches afar the more (in)visible sites of cyberculture in his relentlessly scorching critique of the postevolutionary romanticism of the on-line world—the relatively unexamined will to leave our ‘obsolete’ bodies behind as we become superlunary voyagers of extraterrestrial silicon bliss (viz. Hardison, Moravec, and Vinge). Dery’s invaluable project to counter the postmodern cyborg desire to ‘objectify ourselves to death’ (Vivian Sobchack)—a discernible trend in contemporary life, traceable to Walter Benjamin’s observations on humankind’s propensity to experience self-alienation as “an aesthetic pleasure of the first kind”—is grounded in a rigorous attempt to italicise the ethical, social and political implications of the mind-jarring nonsense that is propagated in the name of cybernetic technologies.

One of the first things that the reader will enjoy about Escape Velocity is the author’s inimitable prose style. Dery writes like Lenny Bruce on speed: it’s a neon-lit, hallucinatory scalpel writing style that captures the highly kinetic quality of author’s freewheeling speech. We know how writing about digital media is remarkably conducive to the creation of metaphors, neologisms and phrases, but to read Dery’s visceral Celinian writing is to exactly experience the author’s lava-hot lecturing style.

Dery’s omnidirectional capacity to coin sharply-etched neologisms not only deflates the more spurious hyperbole of the information age (for example, the promotion in some circles of the new media as a welcomed expression of bodily extension and disembodiment, what McLuhan aptly termed “auto-amputation”), but it also allows Dery to significantly contribute both substantial historical information of the digital underground and a critical, scholarly spin on value new media theory. Escape Velocity, in a word, reminds us of the urgent necessity to address the new media technologies with all the rigour that is evident elsewhere in contemporary cultural studies. It behoves us to speak of digital media in an informed historical context, to know our subject in terms of a self-reflexive materialist analysis grounded in the task of addressing the “social physics” of technology (Avital Ronell).

One of the premises of Escape Velocity is that the new media technologies (especially the personal computer) and their techno-transcendental promotion in everyday life is primarily an American phenomenon. Dery is correct to point this out at the beginning of the book, for what is clear in the context of global digital media is how technological progress (read Leo Marx’s notion of “the rhetoric of the technological sublime”) has always been stressed as an American phenomenon. Consequently, the personal computer and the internet, and their post-GATT promotion as the centre of a supposed coming electronic Jeffersonian democracy, suggests not only human disembodiment but also (what Buckminster Fuller once termed) “the ephemeralisation of labour”.

Dery seeks to probe beneath the techno-hype of cyberculture and question the many contradictions, shortcomings and tensions that characterise the mutating computer-mediated interaction between our immaterial and material lives. This requires nothing less than a fundamental negotiation of our collective and individual capacity to delude ourselves into thinking that with media technology we can escape from the very bodily, cultural and epistemological features that define us as we approach the end of this century. Dery’s anti-idealist investigation of computer culture goes beyond the Sunday Supplement hyperbole to define a penetrating critique of the futurological mysticism and techno-eschatology that colour the various digital subcultures comprising our high-tech world. Dery’s contextualisation of these (till now relatively unexamined) digital subcultures apropos of contemporary science fiction, science, robotics, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, futurology, and the counter-revolution of the 60s, is a major achievement.

Dery focuses on the runaway millenarian fantasies and myths that are defining the ‘escape velocity’ rhetoric of post-Darwinian posthumanism—what in the author’s vivid phrase constitutes “a theology of the ejector seat”­­—that we encounter in many forms: cybernetic body art (Stelarc, Therrien, Orlan), cyberdelia (Mondo 2000, Whole Earth Review, Leary and McKenna), techno-paganism (Bulletin board systems like Modem Magick, Deus ex Machina, and Scared Grove), cyberpunk, metal machine music (Throbbing Gristle, Elliot Sharp, and Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails) and the ‘techno-surrealist’ mechanical spectacles of Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories. Dery argues persuasively against the self-deluding end-of-the-millennium utopianism of postevolutionary robotics and space migration (Burroughs and Moravec) insisting of the hermeneutic urgency of the “moral gaze” (contra Baudrillard) of posthumanist thought. We must, that is to say, critically address the biological and socio-cultural fictions that comprise the reductionist theology of cyborg escapism.

The disembodied rhetoric of posthumanism, for critics like Dery, Vivian Sobchack and Andrew Ross, suggests a vast unchecked contempt for the body and the material world. The many rosy paeans sung for high technology as an expression of the Enlightenment project, for American techno-utopianism and for the Olympian Cartesian fantasies of ‘downloading’ our brains onto the global cybernetic circuitry of our cyborg futures (a la Lecht, Moravec, Vinge and Zey), are deconstructed by Dery and shown to be misguided, unconstructive and dangerously distorted. Dery insists on staying earth-bound, and this is one of Escape Velocity’s more appealing characteristics.

Dery attacks the technocratic elitism of Moravec’s ideas on advanced robotics, Mondo 2000’s airy, high-minded endorsement of a “dictatorship of the neurotriat” and the free-market expansionism of computer technology by digging deep in the interzone between the giddy technophilic pronouncements made by today’s cyber-zealots and the actual socio-cultural impact of the computer at this historical moment. Dery’s provocative book insists on probing the refusal in our techno-media landscape to adequately negotiate the social and political currents that are germane to the main concerns and direction of our emerging on-line world.

At the centre of Dery’s deftly constructed arguments is the notion of the computer as a “Janus machine, an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression”. Escape Velocity demonstrates the many shortcomings of the seductive, self-fulfilling apocalyptic fantasies of computer-mediated “transcendental” ideology that feature in the digital over- and underground. Whilst some of us may be preparing for a posthumanist lift-off from the ecological devastation, social anomie, impoverisation, polarisation, and political alienation that characterise planet earth as we hurtle towards the next millennium, Dery begs to differ. He insists that our voyagers of techno-rapture who wish a life beyond our stratosphere are ignoring (at their peril) the critical and moral wisdom of keeping their feet on earth.

Escape Velocity is an essential read for anyone who in concerned with the complex, shifting intersections between culture, biology, politics and digital technology. Dery’s morally charged insistence on locating the new technologies within the everyday orbit of ecological and socio-political gravity is appreciably timely. Because Dery values crashdowns, not lift-offs, earth-bound historical observations not apolitical cyber-abstractions based on the Icarus myth, Escape Velocity’s critical future is assured.

RealTime issue #15 Oct-Nov 1996 pg. 25

© John Conomos; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1996