Signifying the Processes of Production
"Language is not a code," Lacan asserted, because he wished to deny any one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and the signified.(11) In word processing, however, language is a code. The relation between assembly and compiler languages is specified by a coding arrangement, as is the relation of the compiler language to the programming commands that the user manipulates. Through these multiple transformations some quantity is conserved, but it is not the mechanical energy implicit in a system of levers or the molecular energy of a thermodynamical system. Rather it is the informational structure that emerges from the interplay between pattern and randomness. The immateriality of the text, deriving from a translation of mechanical leverage into informational patterns, allows transformations to take place that would be unthinkable if matter or energy were the primary basis for the systemic exchanges. This textual fluidity, which the user learns in her body as she interacts with the system, implies that signifiers flicker rather than float.
To explain what I mean by flickering signifiers, I will find it useful briefly to review Lacan's notion of floating signifiers. Lacan, operating within a view of language that was primarily print-based rather than electronically mediated, not surprisingly focused on presence and absence as the dialectic of interest.(12) When he formulated the concept of floating signifiers, he drew on Saussure's idea that signifiers are defined by networks of relational differences between themselves rather than by their relation to signifieds. He complicated this picture by maintaining that signifieds do not exist in themselves, except insofar as they are produced by signifiers. He imagined them as an ungraspable flow floating beneath a network of signifiers that itself is constituted through continual slippages and displacements. Thus for him a doubly reinforced absence is at the core of signification--absence of signifieds as things-in-themselves as well as absence of stable correspondences between signifiers. The catastrophe in psycholinguistic development corresponding to this absence in signification is castration, the moment when the (male) subject symbolically confronts the realization that subjectivity, like language, is founded on absence.
How does this scenario change when floating signifiers give way to flickering signifiers? Foregrounding pattern and randomness, information technologies operate within a realm in which the signifier is opened to a rich internal play of difference. In informatics the signifier can no longer be understood as a single marker, for example an ink mark on a page. Rather it exists as a flexible chain of markers bound together by the arbitrary relations specified by the relevant codes. As I write these words on my computer, I see the lights on the video screen, but for the computer the relevant signifiers are magnetic tracks on disks. Intervening between what I see and what the computer reads are the machine code that correlates alphanumeric symbols with binary digits, the compiler language that correlates these symbols with higher level instructions determining how the symbols are to be manipulated, the processing program that mediates between these instructions and the commands I give the computer, and so forth. A signifier on one level becomes a signified on the next higher level. Precisely because the relation between signifier and signifier at each of these levels is arbitrary, it can be changed with a single global command. If I am producing ink marks by manipulating moveable type, changing the font requires changing each line of type. By contrast, if I am producing flickering signifiers on a video screen, changing the font is as easy as giving the system a single command. The longer the chain of codes, the more radical the transformations that can be effected. Acting as linguistic levers, the coding chains impart astonishing power to even very small changes. Such leverage is possible because the constant reproduced through multiple coding layers is a pattern rather than a presence. Pattern can be recognized through redundancy or repetition of elements. If there is only repetition, however, no new information is imparted; the intermixture of randomness rescues pattern from sterility. If there is only randomness, the result is gibberish rather than communication. Information is produced by a complex dance between predictability and unpredictabililty, repetition and variation. We have seen that the possibilities for mutation are enhanced and heightened by long coding chains. We can now understand mutation in more fundamental terms. Mutation is crucial because it names the bifurcation point at which the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve in a new direction.(13) Mutation implies both the replication of pattern--the morphological standard against which it can be measured and understood as a mutation--and the interjection of randomness--the variations that mark it as a deviation so decisive it can no longer be assimilated into the same.
Mutation is the catastrophe in the pattern/randomness dialectic analogous to castration in presence/absence. It marks the opening of pattern to randomness so extreme that the expectation of continuous replication can no longer be sustained. But as with castration, this only appears to be a disruption located at a specific moment. The randomness to which mutation testifies is always already interwoven into pattern. One way to understand this "always already" is through the probability function that mathematically defines information in Claude Shannon's classic equations in information theory.(14) Were randomness not always already immanent, we would be in the Newtonian world of strict causality rather than the information-theoretic realm of probability. More generally, randomness is involved because it is only against the background or possibility of non-pattern that pattern can emerge. Wherever pattern exists, randomness is implicit as the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as such. The crisis named by mutation is as wide-ranging and pervasive in its import within the pattern/randomness dialectic as castration is within the tradition of presence/absence, for it is the visible mark that testifies to the continuing interplay of the dialectical terms.
Shifting the emphasis from presence/absence to pattern/randomness suggests different choices for tutor texts. Rather than Freud's discussion of "fort/da" (a short passage whose replication in hundreds of commentaries would no doubt astonish its creator), theorists interested in pattern and randomness might point to something like David Cronenberg's film The Fly. At a certain point the protagonist's penis does fall off (he quaintly puts it in his medicine chest as a momento to times past), but the loss scarcely registers in the larger metamorphosis he is undergoing. The operative transition is not from male to female-as-castrated-male, but from human to something radically other than human (see Figure 3). Flickering signification brings together language with a psychodynamics based on the symbolic moment when the human confronts the posthuman.
I understand "human" and "posthuman" to be historically specific constructions that emerge from different configurations of embodiment, technology, and culture. A convenient point of reference for the human is the picture constructed by nineteenth-century U.S. and British anthropologists of "man" as a tool-user.(15) Using tools may shape the body (some anthropologists made this argument), but the tool nevertheless is envisioned as an object, apart from the body, that can be picked up and put down at will. When the claim could not be sustained that man's unique nature was defined by tool use (because other animals were shown also to use tools), the focus shifted during the early twentieth century to man the tool-maker. Typical is Kenneth P. Oakley's 1949 Man the Tool-Maker, a magisterial work with the authority of the British Museum behind it.(16) Oakley, in charge of the Anthropological Section of the museum's Natural History division, wrote in his introduction, "Employment of tools appears to be [man's] chief biological characteristic, for considered functionally they are detachable extensions of the forelimb" [p. 1]. The kind of tool he envisioned was mechanical rather than informational; it goes with the hand, not on the head. Significantly, he imagined the tool to be at once "detachable" and an "extension," separate from yet partaking of the hand. If the placement and kind of tool marks his affinity with the epoch of the human, its construction as a prosthesis points forward to the posthuman. Similar ambiguities informed the Macy Conference discussions taking place during the same period (1946-53), as participants wavered between a vision of man as a homeostatic self-regulating mechanism whose boundaries were clearly delineated from the environment,(17) and a more threatening, reflexive vision of a man spliced into an informational circuit that could change him in unpredictable ways. By the 1960s, the consensus within cybernetics had shifted dramatically toward reflexivity. By the 1980s, the inertial pull of homeostasis as a constitutive concept had largely given way to theories of self-organization that implied radical changes were possible within certain kinds of complex systems.(18) Through these discussions, the "posthuman" future of "humanity" began increasingly to be evoked. Examples range from Hans Moravec's invocation of a "postbiological" future in which human consciousness is downloaded into a computer, to the more sedate (and in part already realized) prospect of a symbiotic union between human and intelligent machine that Howard Rheingold calls "intelligence augmentation."(19) Although these visions differ in the degree and kind of interfaces they imagine, they concur that the posthuman implies a coupling so intense and multifaceted that it is no longer possible to distinguish meaningfully between the biological organism and the informational circuits in which it is enmeshed. Accompanying this change, I have argued, is a corresponding shift in how signification is understood and corporeally experienced. In contrast to Lacanian psycholinguistics, derived from the generative coupling of linguistics and sexuality, flickering signification is the progeny of the fascinating and troubling coupling of language and machine.
Information Narratives and Bodies of Information
The shift from presence and absence to pattern and randomness is encoded into every aspect of contemporary literature, from the physical object that constitutes the text to such staples of literary interpretation as character, plot, author, and reader. The development is by no means even; some texts testify dramatically and explicitly to the shift, whereas others manifest it only indirectly. I will call the texts where the displacement is most apparent information narratives. Information narratives show in exaggerated form changes that are more subtly present in other texts as well. Whether in information narratives or contemporary fiction generally, the dynamic of displacement is crucial. One could focus on pattern in any era, but the peculiarity of pattern in these texts is its interpenetration with randomness and its implicit challenge to physicality. Pattern tends to overwhelm presence, marking a new kind of immateriality which does not depend on spirituality or even consciousness, only on information.
I begin my exploration with William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), the novel that sparked the cyberpunk movement and motivated Autodesk, a software company, to launch a major initiative in developing virtual reality technology. Hard on the heels of Neuromancer came two more volumes, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). The Neuromancer trilogy gave a local habitation and a name to the disparate spaces of computer simulations, networks, and hypertext windows that prior to Gibson's intervention had been discussed as separate phenomena. Gibson's novels acted like seed crystals thrown into a supersaturated solution; the time was ripe for the technology known as cyberspace to precipitate into public consciousness. The narrator defines cyberspace as a "consensual illusion" accessed when a user "jacks into" a computer (p. 51). Here the writer's imagination outstrips existing technologies, for Gibson imagines a direct neural link between the brain and computer through electrodes. Another version of this link is a socket implanted behind the ear which accepts computer chips, allowing direct neural access to computer memory. Network users collaborate in creating the richly textured landscape of cyberspace, 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 . . ." (p. 51). Existing in the non-material space of computer simulation, cyberspace defines a perimeter within which pattern is the essence of the reality, presence an optical illusion.
Like the landscapes they negotiate, the subjectivities who operate within cyberspace also become patterns rather than physical entities. Case, the computer cowboy who is the novel's protagonist, still has a physical presence, although he regards his body as so much "meat" that exists primarily to sustain his consciousness until the next time he can enter cyberspace. Others have completed the transition that Case's values imply. Dixie Flatline, a cowboy who encountered something in cyberspace that flattened his EEG, ceased to exist as a physical body and lives now as a personality construct within the computer, defined by the magnetic patterns that store his identity.
The contrast between the body's limitations and cyberspace's power highlights the advantages of pattern over presence. As long as the pattern endures, one has attained a kind of immortality. Such views are authorized by cultural conditions that make physicality seem a better state to be from than to inhabit. In a world despoiled by overdeverlopment, overpopulation, and time-release environmental poisons, it is comforting to think that physical forms can recover their pristine purity by being reconstituted as informational patterns in a multidimensional computer space. A cyberspace body, like a cyberspace landscape, is immune to blight and corruption. It is no accident that the vaguely apocalyptic landscapes of films like The Terminator, Bladerunner and Hardware occur in narratives focusing on cybernetic lifeforms. The sense that the world is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by human beings is part of the impetus toward the displacement of presence by pattern.
These connections lie close to the surface in Neuromancer. "Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell specialities. Then you could throw yourself into a highspeed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market. . ." (p. 16). The metaphoric slippages between urban sprawl, computer matrix and biological protein culminate in the final elliptical phrase, "data made flesh." Information is the putative origin, physicality the derivative manifestation. Body parts sold in black market clinics, body neurochemistry manipulated by synthetic drugs, body of the world overlaid by urban sprawl testify to the precariousness of physical existence. If flesh is data incarnate, why not go back to the source and leave the perils of physicality behind?
The reasoning presupposes that subjectivity and computer programs have a common arena in which to interact. Historically, that arena was first defined in cybernetics by the creation of a conceptual framework that constituted humans, animals, and machines as information-processing devices receiving and transmitting signals to effect goal-directed behavior.(20) Gibson matches this technical achievement with two literary innovations that allow subjectivity, with its connotations of consciousness and self-awareness, to be articulated together with abstract data. The first is a subtle modification in point of view, abbreviated in the text as pov. More than an acroynym, pov is a substantive noun that constitutes the character's subjectivity by serving as a positional marker substituting for his absent body.
In its usual Jamesian sense, point of view presumes the fiction of a person who observes the action from a particular angle and tells what he sees. In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James imagines a "house of fiction" with a "million windows" formed by "the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will."(21) At each "stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other" (p. 46). For James the observer is an embodied creature, and the specificity of his location determines what he can see as he looks out on a scene that itself is physically specific. When an omniscient viewpoint is used, the limitations of the narrator's corporeality begin to fall away, but the suggestion of embodiment lingers in the idea of focus, the "scene" created by the eye's movement.
Even for James, vision is not unmediated technologically. Significantly, he hovers between eye and field glass as the receptor constituting vision. Cyberspace represents a quantum leap forward into the technological construction of vision. Instead of an embodied consciousness looking through the window at a scene, consciousness moves through the screen to become the pov, leaving behind the body as a unoccupied shell. In cyberspace point of view does not emanate from the character; rather, the pov literally is the character. If a pov is annihilated the character disappears with it, ceasing to exist as a consciousness in and out of cyberspace. The realistic fiction of a narrator who observes but does not create is thus unmasked in cyberspace. The effect is not primarily metafictional, however, but in a literal sense metaphysical, above and beyond physicality. The crucial difference between the Jamesian point of view and cyberspace pov is that the former implies physical presence, whereas the latter does not.
Gibson's technique recalls Robbe-Grillet's novels, which were among the first information narratives to exploit the formal consequences of combining subjectivity with data. In Robbe-Grillet, however, the effect of interfacing narrative voice with objective description was paradoxically to heighten the narrator's subjectivity, for certain objects, like the jalousied windows or the centipede in Jealousy, are inventoried with obsessive interest, indicating a mindset that is anything but objective. In Gibson, the space in which subjectivity moves lacks this personalized stamp. Cyberspace is the domain of postmodern collectivity, constituted as the resultant of millions of vectors representing the diverse and often conflicting interests of human and artificial intelligences linked together through computer networks.
To make this space work as a level playing field on which humans and computers can meet on equal terms, Gibson introduces his second innovation. Cyberspace is created by transforming a data matrix into a landscape in which narratives can happen. In mathematics matrix is a technical term denoting data that have been arranged into an n-dimensional array. Expressed in this form, data seem as far removed from the fascinations of story as random number tables are from the National Inquirer. Because the array is already conceptualized in spatial terms, however, it is a small step to imagining it as a three-dimensional landscape. Narrative becomes possible when this spatiality is given a temporal dimension by the pov's movement through it. The pov is located in space, but it exists in time. Through the track it weaves, the desires, repressions, and obsessions of subjectivity can be expressed. The genius of Neuromancer lies in its explicit recognition that the categories Kant considered fundamental to human experience, space and time, can be used as a conjunction to join awareness with data. Reduced to a point, the pov is abstracted into a purely temporal entity with no spatial extension; metaphorized into an interactive space, the datascape is narrativized by the pov's movement through it. Data are thus humanized, and subjectivity computerized, allowing them to join in a symbiotic union whose result is narrative.
Such innovations carry the implications of informatics beyond the textual surface into the signifying processes that constitute theme and character. I suspect that Gibson's novels have been so influential not only because they present a vision of the posthuman future that is already upon us--in this they are no more prescient than many other science fiction novels--but also because they embody within their techniques the assumptions expressed explicitly in the novels' themes. This kind of move is possible or inevitable when the cultural conditions authorizing the assumptions are pervasive enough so that the posthuman is experienced as an everyday lived reality as well as an intellectual proposition.
In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey characterizes the economic aspects of the shift to an informatted society as a transition from a Fordist regime to a regime of flexible accumulation.(22) As Harvey along with many others have pointed out, in late capitalism durable goods yield pride of place to information.(23) A significant difference between information and durable goods is replicability. Information is not a conserved quantity. If I give you information, you have it and I do too. With information, the constraining factor separating the haves from the have-nots is not so much possession as access. The shift of emphasis from ownership to access is another manifestation of the underlying transition from presence/absence to pattern/randomness. Presence precedes and makes possible the idea of possession, for one can possess something only if it already exists. By contrast, access implies pattern recognition, whether the access is to a piece of land (recognized as such through the boundary pattern defining that land as different from adjoining parcels), confidential information (constituted as confidential through the comparison of its informational patterns with less secure documents), or a bank vault (associated with knowing the correct pattern of tumbler combinations). In general, access differs from possession because it tracks patterns rather than presences. When someone breaks into a computer system, it is not her physical presence that is detected but the informational traces her entry has created.(24)
When the emphasis falls on access rather than ownership, the private/public distinction that was so important in the formation of the novel is radically reconfigured. Whereas possession implies the existence of private life based on physical exclusion or inclusion, access implies the existence of credentialling practices that use patterns rather than presences to distinguish between those who do and do not have the right to enter. Morover, entering is itself constituted as access to data rather than a change in physical location. In DeLillo's White Noise (1985), for example, the Gladney's home, traditionally the private space of family life, is penetrated by noise and radiation of all wavelengths--microwave, radio, television. The penetration signals that private spaces, and the private thoughts they engender and figure, are less a concern than the interplay between codes and the articulation of individual subjectivity with data. Jack Gladney's death is prefigured for him as a pattern of pulsing stars around a computerized data display, and it is surely no accident that Babette, his wife, objects to the idea that a man sexually "enters" a woman. The phrases she prefers emphasize by contrast the idea of access.
Although the Gladney family still operates as a social unit (albeit with the geographical dispersion endemic to postmodern life), their conversations are punctuated by random bits of information emanating from the radio and TV. The punctuation points toward a mutation in subjectivity that comes from joining the focused attention of traditional novelistic consciousness with the digitized randomness of miscellaneous bits. The mutation reaches incarnation in Willie Mink, whose brain has become so addled by a designer drug that his consciousness is finally indistinguishable from the white noise that surrounds him. Through a different route than that used by Gibson, DeLillo arrives at a similar destination: a vision of subjectivity constituted through the interplay of pattern and randomness rather than presence and absence.
The bodies of texts are also implicated in these changes. The displacement of presence by pattern thins the tissue of textuality, making it a semipermeable membrane that allows awareness of the text as an informational pattern to infuse into the space of representation. When the fiction of presence gives way to the recognition of pattern, passages are opened between the text-as-object and representations within the text that are characteristically postmodern. Consider the play between text as physical object and information flow in Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (1981). The text's awareness of its own physicality is painfully apparent in the anxiety it manifests toward keeping the literary corpus intact. Within the space of representation, texts are subjected to birth defects, maimed and torn apart, lost and stolen, and last but hardly least, pulverized when the wrong computer key is pushed and the stored words are randomized into miscellaneous bits.
The anxiety is transmitted to readers within the text who keep pursuing parts of textual bodies only to lose them, as well as to readers outside the text who must try to make sense of the radically discontinuous narrative. Only when the titles of the parts are perceived to form a sentence is the literary corpus reconstituted as a unity. Significantly, the recuperation is syntactical rather than physical. It does not arise from or imply an intact physical body. Rather, it emerges from the patterns--metaphorical, grammatical, narrative, thematic and textual--that the parts together make. As the climactic scene in the library suggests, the reconstituted corpus is a body of information, emerging from the discourse community among whom information circulates.
The correspondence between transformations in human and textual bodies can be seen as early as William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), written in the decade that saw the institutionalization of cybernetics and the construction of the first large-scale electronic computer. The narrative metamorphizes nearly as often as bodies within it, suggesting by its cut-up method a textual corpus as artificial, heterogeneous, and cybernetic as they are.(25) Since the fissures that mark the text always fall within the units that comprise the textual body--within chapters, paragraphs, sentences and even words--it becomes increasingly clear that they do not function to delineate the textual corpus.Rather, the body of the text is produced precisely by these fissures, which are not so much ruptures as productive dialectics bringing the narrative as a syntactic and chronological sequence into being.
Bodies within the text follow the same logic. Under the pressure of sex and addiction, bodies explode or mutate, protoplasm is sucked out of cocks or nostrils, plots are hatched to take over the planet or nearest lifeform. Burroughs anticipates Jameson's claim that an information society is the purest form of capitalism.(26) When bodies are constituted as information, they can not only be sold but fundamentally reconstituted in response to market pressures. Junk instantiates the dynamics of informatics and makes clear its relation to late capitalism. Junk is the "ideal product" because the "junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client" ("Introduction," xxxix). The junkie's body is a harbinger of the postmodern mutant, for it demonstrates how presence yields to patterns of assembly and disassembly created by the flow of junk-as-information through points of amplification and resistance.
The characteristics of information narratives include, then, an emphasis on mutation and transformation as a central thematic for bodies within the text as well as for the bodies of texts. Subjectivity, already joined with information technologies through cybernetic circuits, is further integrated into the circuit by novelistic techniques that combine it with data. Access vies with possession as a structuring element, and data are narrativized to accomodate their integration with subjectivity. In general, materiality and immateriality are joined in a complex tension that is a source of exultation and strong anxiety. To understand the links between information narratives and other contemporary fictions that may not obviously fall into this category, let us turn now to consider the more general effects of informatics on narrative encodings.
Functionalities of Narrative
The very word narrator implies a voice speaking, and a speaking voice implies a sense of presence. Derrida, announcing the advent of grammatology, focused on the gap that separates speaking from writing; such a change transforms the narrator from speaker to scribe, or more precisely an absence toward which the inscriptions point.(27) Informatics pushes this transformation further. As writing yields to flickering signifiers underwritten by binary digits, the narrator becomes not so much a scribe as a cyborg authorized to access the relevant codes.
To see how the function of the narrator changes, consider the seduction scene from "I Was an Infinitely Hot and Dense White Dot," one of the stories in Mark Layner's My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist.(28) The narrator, "high on Sinutab" and driving "isotropically," so that any destination is equally probable, finds himself at a "squalid little dive" (p. 6).
I don't know. . . but there she is. I can't tell if she's a human or a fifth-generation gynemorphic android and I don't care. I crack open an ampule of mating pheromone and let it waft across the bar, as I sip my drink, a methyl isocyanate on the rocks--methyl isocyanate is the substance which killed more than 2,000 people when it leaked in Bhopal, India, but thanks to my weight training, aerobic workouts, and a low-fat fiber-rich diet, the stuff has no effect on me. Sure enough she strolls over and occupies the stool next to mine. . . . My lips are now one angstrom unit from her lips . . . I begin to kiss her but she turns her head away. . . . I can't kiss you, we're monozygotic replicants--we share 100% of our genetic material. My head spins. You are the beautiful day, I exclaim, your breath is a zephyr of eucalyptus that does a pas de bourre across the Sea of Galilee. Thanks, she says, but we can't go back to my house and make love because monozygotic incest is forbidden by the elders. What if I said I could change all that. . . What if I said that I had a miniature shotgun that blasts gene fragments into the cells of living organisms, altering their genetic matrices so that a monozygotic replicant would no longer be a monozygotic replicant and she could then make love to a muscleman without transgressing the incest taboo, I say, opening my shirt and exposing the device which I had stuck in the waistband of my black jeans. How'd you get that thing? she gasps, ogling its thick fiber-reinforced plastic barrel and the Uzi-Biotech logo embossed on the magazine which held two cartridges of gelated recombinant DNA. I got it for Christmas. . . . Do you have any last words before I scramble your chromosomes, I say, taking aim. Yes, she says, you first (p. 7).
Much of the passage's wit comes from the juxtaposition of folk wisdom and seduction cliches with high-tech language and ideas that makes them nonsensical. The narrator sips a chemical that killed thousands when it leaked into the environment, but he is immune to damage because he eats a low-fat diet. The narrator leans close to the woman/android to kiss her, but he has not yet made contact when he is an angstrom away, considerably less than the diameter of a hydrogen atom. The characters cannot make love because they are barred by incest taboos, being replicants from the same monozygote, which would make them identical twins but does not seem to prevent them from being opposite sexes. They are governed by kinship rules enforced by tribal elders, but they have access to genetic technologies that intervene in and disrupt evolutionary modes of descent. They think their problem can be solved by an Uzi-Biotech weapon that will scramble their chromosomes, but the narrator, at least, seems to expect their identities to survive intact.
Even within the confines of a short story no more than five pages long, this encounter is not preceded or followed by events that relate directly to it. Rather the narrative leaps from scene to scene, which are linked by only the most tenuous and arbitrary threads. The incongruities make the narrative a kind of textual android created through patterns of assembly and disassembly. There is no natural body to this text, any more than there are natural bodies within the text. As the title intimates, identity merges with typograpy ("I was a . . . dot") and is further conflated with such high-tech reconstructions as computer simulations of gravitational collapse ("I was an infintelyhot and dense white dot"). Signifiers collapse like stellar bodies into an explosive materiality that approaches the critical point of nova, ready to blast outward into dissipating waves of flickering signification.
The explosive tensions between cultural codes that familiarize the action and neologistic splices that dislocate traditional expectations do more than structure the narrative. They also constitute the narrator, who exists less as a speaking voice endowed with a plausible psychology than as a series of fissures and dislocations that push toward a new kind of subjectivity. To understand the nature of this subjectivity, let us imagine a trajectory that arcs from storyteller to professional to some destination beyond. The shared community of values and presence that Walter Benjamin had in mind when he evoked the traditional storyteller whose words are woven into the rhythms of work echo faintly in allusions to the Song of Songs and tribal elders.(29) Overlaid on this is the professionalization that Lyotard wrote about in The Postmodern Condition, in which the authority to tell the story is constituted by possessing the appropriate credentials that qualify one as a member of a physically dispersed, electronically bound professional community.(30) This phase of the trajectory is signified in a number of ways. The narrator is driving "isotropically," indicating that physical location is no longer necessary or relevant to the production of the story. His authority derives not from his physical participation in a community but his possession of a high-tech language that includes pheramones, methyl isocyanate, and gelated recombinant DNA, not to mention the Uzi-Biotech phallus. This authority too is displaced even as it is created, for the incongruities reveal that the narrative and therefore the narrator are radically unstable, about to mutate into a scarcely conceivable form, signified in the story by the high-tech, identity-transforming orgasmic blast that never quite comes.
What is this form? Its physical manifestations vary, but the ability to manipulate complex codes is a constant. The looming transformation, already enacted through the passage's language, is into a subjectivity who derives his authority from possessing the correct codes. Countless scenarios exist in popular literature and culture where someone fools a computer into thinking he is an "authorized" person because he possesses or stumbles upon the codes that the computer recognizes as constituting authorization. Usually these scenarios imply that the person exists unchanged, taking on a spurious identity that allows him to move unrecognized within an informational system. There is, however, another way to read these narratives. Constituting identity through authorization codes changes the person who uses them into another kind of subjectivity, precisely one who exists and is recognized because he knows the codes. The surface deception is underlaid by a deeper truth. We become the codes we punch. The narrator is not a storyteller and not a professional authority, although these functions linger in the narrative as anachronistic allusions and wrenched referentiality. Rather the narrator is a keyboarder, a hacker, a manipulator of codes.(31) Assuming that the text was at some phase in its existence digitized, in a literal sense he (it?) is these codes.
The construction of the narrator as a manipulator of codes obviously has important implications for the construction of the reader. The reader is similarly constituted through a layered archeology that moves from listener to reader to decoder. Because codes can be sent over fiber optics essentially instantaneously, there is no longer a shared, stable context that helps to anchor meaning and guide interpretation. Like reading, decoding takes place in a location arbitrarily far removed in space and time from the source text. In contrast to fixed type print, however, decoding implies that there is no original text--no first editions, no fair copies, no holographic manuscripts. There are only the flickering signfiers, whose transient patterns evoke and embody what G. W. S. Trow has called the context of no context, the suspicion that all contexts, like all texts, are electronically mediated constructions.(32) What binds the decoder to the system is not the stability of an interpretive community or the intense pleasure of physically possessing the book that all bibliophiles know. Rather it is her construction as a cyborg, her recognition that her physicality is also data made flesh, another flickering signifier in a chain of signification that extends through many levels, from the DNA that in-formats her body to the binary code that is the computer's first language.
"Functionality" is a term used by virtual reality technologists to describe the communication modes that are active in a computer-human interface. If the user wears a data glove, for example, hand motions constitute one functionality. If the computer can respond to voice-activated commands, voice is another functionality. If it can sense body position, spatial location is yet another. Functionalities work in both directions; that is, they both describe the computer's capabilities and also indicate how the user's sensory-motor apparatus is being trained to accomodate the computer's responses. Working with a VR simulation, the user learns to move her hand in stylized gestures that the computer can accomodate. In the process, changes take place in the neural configuration of the user's brain, some of which can be long-lasting. The computer molds the human even as the human builds the computer.
When narrative functionalities change, a new kind of reader is produced by the text. The effects of flickering signification ripple outward because readers are trained to read through different functionalities, which can affect how they interpret any text, including texts written before computers were invented. Moreover, changes in narrative functionalities go deeper than structural or thematic characteristics of a specific genre, for they shift the modalities that are activated to produce the narrative. It is on this level that the subtle connections between information narratives and other kinds of contemporary fictions come into play.
Drawing on a context that included information technologies, Roland Barthes in S/Z brilliantly demonstrated the possibility of reading a text as a production of diverse codes.(33) Information narratives make that possibility an inevitability, for they often cannot be understood, even on a literal level, without referring to codes and their relation to information technologies. Flickering signification extends the productive force of codes beyond the text to include the signifying processes by which the technologies produce texts, as well as the interfaces that enmesh humans into integrated circuits. As the circuits connecting technology, text, and human expand and intensify, the point where quantitative increments shade into qualitative transformation draws closer. If my assessment is correct that the dialectic of pattern/randomness is displacing presence/absence, the implications extend beyond narrative into many cultural arenas. In my view, one of the most serious of these implications for the present cultural moment is a systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment. I find this trend ironic, for changes in material conditions and embodied experience are precisely what give the shift its deep roots in everyday experience. In this essay I have been concerned not only to anatomize the shift and understand its implications for literature but also to suggest that it should be understood in the context of changing experiences of embodiment. If on the one hand embodiment implies that informatics is imprinted into body as well as mind, on the other it also acts as a reservoir of materiality that resists the pressure toward dematerialization.
Implicit in nearly everything I have written here is the assumption that presence and pattern are opposites existing in antagonistic relation. The more emphasis that falls on one, the less the other is noticed and valued. Entirely different readings emerge when one entertains the possibility that pattern and presence are mutually enhancing and supportive. Paul Virilio has observed that one cannot ask whether information technologies should continue to be developed.(34) Given market forces already at work, it is virtually (if I may use the word) certain that increasingly we will live, work, and play in environments that construct us as embodied virtualities.(35) I believe that our best hope to intervene constructively in this development is to put an interpretive spin on it that opens up the possibilities of seeing pattern and presence as complementary rather than antagonistic. Information, like humanity, cannot exist apart from the embodiment that brings it into being as a material entity in the world; and embodiment is always instantiated, local, and specific. Embodiment can be destroyed but it cannot be replicated. Once the specific form constituting it is gone, no amount of massaging data will bring it back. This observation is as true of the planet as it is of an individual lifeform. As we rush to explore the new vistas that cyberspace has made available for colonization, let us also remember the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced.