Upload Now: On William Gibson's Spook Country

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Laurie Johnson, Germanic Languages and Literatures

“Secrets are cool,” says Hubertus Hendrik Bigend, the mysterious advertising magnate and “nominal Belgian” whose role in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003) is reprised in Spook Country (2007, set in 2006). “Secrets are the very root of cool” (SC 108). As Hollis Henry, a former rock band member turned journalist, searches for the secret at the center of Spook Country, she replaces Pattern Recognition’s professional “cool hunter,” Cayce Pollard. And Spook Country is a very cool book, its narrative moving between the perspectives of spies (who may or may not be seeking secrets about putative contractors who may or may not work for an entity that may or may not be the government of the “United States of America, New Improved Edition”) and the points of view of cyberpunk artists very much implicated in the corporate culture that enables their work.

A spook is a spy, but also a ghost, and both keep secrets. Spook Country initially seems to suggest that since September 11, 2001, the kind of information necessary to change history for the better has been concealed from those who could enact change: for instance, from Gibson’s readers. The author has said elsewhere that we now find ourselves at a historical “nodal point,” a space in time from which anything could go in any direction; this would imply that previous historical models, including dialectical ones, must be thrown away—very few people now know enough about anything to even begin to conduct the kinds of political or intellectual investigations that could lead to the sublation of today into a more genuinely hopeful tomorrow.


At the novel’s outset we are thrown together with Hollis into a weirdly stormy and sepia-toned Los Angeles landscape, a sort of displaced Kansas from The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, Hollis enters a more colorful but even spookier world—in this case when she puts on a visor that permits her to view “locative art,” virtual bodies and objects situated in real space and time by artists using the GPS grid. (Bigend has assigned Hollis to write a piece on locative art for his magazine Node, about which almost no one knows anything either. A “real” Node has been created as an annotation to the novel here.) With her visor on, and in front of the real Viper Room in L.A., Hollis sees the virtual body of the actor River Phoenix, lying where he actually died on Halloween in 1993. She later views gravesite crosses representing individual deaths in Baghdad, images that have been “grabbed” off the Net and transported to California as an artist’s reminder of the war that we collectively forget each day. The high-tech and virtual, yet simultaneously visceral world of locative art is full of ghosts; this is revenant-land, a real spook country.

But when Hollis puts on her visor, first to view locative art and later to help discover the secret that Bigend is really after, hidden knowledge actually is revealed—the visor is just one representation of the kind of technology that shares knowledge, and that makes information of all kinds accessible to more people. Armed with a GPS navigator, a wireless helmet, and a cell phone with a scrambler, Hollis is soon on a quest to discover the contents of a shipping container. To discover the secret and to move her own stalled life, her own history, forward, Hollis needs to use fairly ubiquitous technology to find patterns (of global shipping, of relationships between people, or between events).

Gibson seems to indicate that pattern recognition won’t be of much help several hundred years from now, when people may not recognize their ancestors—us—as human at all. Future historians will thus not readily connect our time with theirs. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce says that future humans will think about us about as often as we think about the Victorians. But the reference to the Victorians is not accidental, as Gibson’s latest fiction returns consistently to images and ideas of the nineteenth century in order to construct a sense of history that is far more continuous than fragmented. What Gibson, in Neuromancer (1984), so influentially called the “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace is still at work in Spook Country; it is a notion that had much traction from Kant’s Critiques (at the latest) on through the nineteenth century: our life together, and our history, depends on the assumption that we all see much the same thing in much the same way, although we cannot know the thing itself. Locative art’s re-creations of and allusions to significant shared culture moments presume that we very much still inhabit a traditional, fundamentally consensual and therefore reliable virtual reality.

By situating his characters at a “nodal point” and deploying images evocative of a shared sense of the nineteenth century, Gibson does depict a world that is dark and confusing. And yet this world is still (literally) navigable, still full of creativity, and still hopeful, and part of its hopefulness comes from its construction of meaningful relationships between past and present. Although much has been made of the ways in which Gibson’s most recent fiction differs from older works like Neuromancer, continuity and similarity dominate his fictive production as well as his view of historical developments. While Gibson implicitly cautions us to be skeptical of clean dialectical movements (as Emanuel Rota did explicitly, in his June 2008 post here about Antonio Negri), his science fiction still makes dialectical gestures (in which elements of the past are preserved in the very present that replaces them). And the landscape of that fiction is populated by subjects still capable of asserting themselves, even if in part as revenants—as spooks (whose contemporary activities aren’t that different from Cold War spying), or as ghostly images returning after an absence (the Statue of Liberty’s torch emerging on a beach reminds us of a forgotten movie scene; Monet’s poppies appear in a hotel room). Poststructuralist theory has been used to argue that writing in the nineteenth century (and earlier) was already Gibsonian, already punk. But Spook Country helps demonstrate the opposite: that Gibson’s kind of punk is still very nineteenth century.

But Spook Country also has been called the first "post-post-9/11 novel," a phrase that implies a demand for a new vision of history, and there is some compelling reason for this label. In part, time has simply passed since 2001 and some things are even scarier: Hollis wonders about the

war on terror. Were they still calling it that? She’d caught some, she decided: terror. Right here in her hand, in Starbucks, afraid to trust her own phone and the net stretching out from it…. The net of telephony, all digitized, and all, she had to suppose, listened to (SC 159-160).


This fear resembles that evoked by Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine (1992; co-written with Bruce Sterling), in which the information age begins in the mid-nineteenth century due to the success of Charles Babbage’s attempts to build computers. By 1991 in that world, an artificially intelligent centralized Eye rules London through surveillance; humans have become disembodied “faces… borrowed masks, and lenses.” Flesh is “simulated” and the creepily desirous Eye ultimately gives birth to an “almost-life” (DE 428, 429).

But this is not the end of history that Spook Country has in mind. And as much fun as it still is to read about, the Eye in The Difference Engine feels like yesterday’s nightmare. Surveillance is of course a very contemporary theme, not only due to wiretapping legislation, but to programs such as Google Earth, and to Google itself. But today’s anxieties, reflected in the above passage from the novel, are about a much more decentralized, truly panoptical form of surveillance—we can’t be being watched all the time, but we could be being watched (or heard, or read) at any time. Even here, though, Gibson today sounds a more upbeat note. In the interview quoted previously, he remarks: “The thing that limits you with Google is what you can think of to Google….You’re still really inside some annotated version of your own head.” Although he refers to this as limiting, we’d probably rather have Google annotating our heads than our heads annotating Google.

Spook Country focuses on the fact that computer-based "utilities" (modalities that refine or augment an already-existing technology) instead of "manifestos" (revolutionary documents) are transforming social life. The heroes fight the power, and their fear, by uploading—actively transferring information from one piece of technology to another, as opposed to the more passive activity of downloading. Uploading is something almost anyone can do. Gibson says that the absence of the middle class in his novels is part of a re-envisioning of the Victorian socioeconomic landscape, which was filled with incredibly rich and desperately poor inhabitants, and little in between. In the neo-Victorian America of Spook Country, the middle class is also clearly vanishing, but the disempowered can still accomplish a lot. They can disrupt the machinations of war profiteers, for instance, by uploading information and smuggling it on iPod drives.

The view of a history that can be modified via utilities, even after the possibility of a manifesto-based revolution has been shut down, is represented by Hollis Henry’s modest, reliable nature. Like Henry Case and Cayce Pollard before her, Hollis represents the kind of American others want to see, and perhaps even (still) to emulate. Gibson often presents Americans as spunky uploaders who refuse to be told they can’t do something. On some of her excursions, Hollis is accompanied by the Frenchwoman Odile (who is thoroughly European, as opposed to the amorphous and transnational Bigend). Discussing the demise of American political culture under the Bush regime, Odile says to Hollis: “If this were my country…I would not be angry.…I would drink all the time. Take pill. Anything.” But Hollis refuses to tune out: she puts the visor on, she stays jacked in even in the face of danger, she talks with friends and foes alike—and she insists on figuring out the secret, even if she ultimately has to go to Canada to do it.

In Spook Country, the motivating power of ideas still matters, even if history is no longer a march of ideas through a suspiciously smooth lack of real space. Ideas motivate in part because they have secrets at their cores. But the secrets themselves in Gibson’s novels are arguably less interesting than the search; on their quests, the protagonists acknowledge a need to confront rather than repress past trauma and to recognize its patterns. One character walks on a New York City rooftop and sees “(c)oncrete covered with asphalt, gravel, secret traces of the World Trade Center.…(he) remembered the pale dust, thick on the sill of his mother’s bedroom window, below Canal” (SC 125). The “post-post-9/11” novel carries the past into its present, proclaiming a new era while making it impossible to forget a past whose traces are everywhere, literally, materially, in the concrete and the dust and the images lodged in our heads. One of the hits recorded by Hollis’s band is entitled “Hard to Be One,” and in the post-post-9/11 era it certainly is: hard to be American, hard to be one of this particular crowd, and hard to be alone.

Spook Country doesn’t try to create a new world order or to posit an autonomy of ideas or of affects. It presents no escape from global capitalism or from the increasing amount of life that is made in China (perhaps the new locus of cool?). But that doesn’t entail a thoughtless complicity with what one character calls “how things are done here now,” either. Gibson’s artists, advertisers, and spies share not only their participation in a continued “consensual hallucination” of codes and signs. They also share felt, lived desire – the desire to discover and reveal secrets (in part via uploading), to resist the temptations of repression and of passivity, and to recognize patterns, as they, and we, face a future we can’t yet Google.

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bruce rosenst said...

Gibson sounds Kantian: the making public of political arcana is the only hope for freedom; the cosmopolitan nature of free pulic discourse.

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