Identity and Transcendence in William Gibson's Neuromancer
In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, one of the ways in which transcendence is explored is depicted clearly by the character Case and cyberspace. Case finds his identity in cyberspace, and his desire to transcend his body is rooted in a desire to escape what he deems to be a flesh prison (Gibson 6). Therefore the motivation behind this desire to transcend the body is often motivated by a desire to escape from reality. Escapism is prevalent in most discussions involving a virtual reality, as “the relationship between the virtual and real, like that between escapism and reality, is seldom questioned” (Calleja 336), rather it is accepted as the norm. However, the novel also presents a counter representation to this through the Zionites. The Zionites do not identify with cyberspace or an ability to transcend the limits of their physical bodies. Therefore, by looking at Case and his struggle to accept his physical body, his identification with cyberspace as a ‘space cowboy’, compared with the Zionites and their distrust of cyberspace, the theme of escapism is explored in relation to a desire to transcend the human body.
Looking at Case’s struggle with his physical self, the desire to transcend the body as a means of escape is exemplified. From the onset, Case views his physical body as limiting, especially when compared with his former job as a space cowboy: “For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh” (Gibson 6). The “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” results in a contempt for his body. He views it as a prison, suggesting confinement and limitation. The contrasting of “bodiless exultation” with the Biblical implication of the “Fall”, already suggests that to Case, cyberspace is seen as a “heaven” experience, and his inability to transcend his body, to escape, is his downfall.
Case’s identification with this virtual reality, and being a cyberspace cowboy also highlights his desire to escape from reality by transcending his body. At the beginning of the novel, when Case no longer has the ability to “jack in” he begins to question his very identity and self worth, stating that even after a year being offline he still struggles:
Everything he does is in an effort to escape his reality. Without his identity as a cyberspace cowboy he is “just another hustler” no longer something special with the “elite stance” that comes with the title. Furthermore, the quotation also mentions that he would “cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark”. However, it seems he is not crying because he is alone or longs for human companionship. He is crying because he is desperately “trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.” He longs for cyberspace as his comfort and means of escape from the limitations of his physical body.
Case’s desire to transcend his body through the use of cyberspace is contrasted with the Zionites, also referred to as “Rastas” or “Rastafarian” (Gibson 115), and their distrust of cyberspace, presenting an alternative view on transcending the body. Firstly, the Rastafarians refer to cyberspace as Babylon. An instance of this is seen after Case jacks in Aerol: “Aerol shuddered. Case jacked him back out. ‘What did you see, man?’ ‘Babylon,’ Aerol said, sadly, handing him the trodes and kicking off down the corridor” (119). This negative response to cyberspace and “Aerol’s visceral and direct rejection shows that cyberspace plays a powerful role in Rasta’s worldview and self-identification” (Fair 93) and they “identify themselves in opposition to this [cyber]space” (93), which is in complete opposition to Case and his desire to escape. Furthermore, the relevance of the term Babylon has cultural connotations to it. According to Kebede and Knottnerus, “the Rastafarian movement [ . . . ] is awaiting the racial redemption of black people from the shackles of Bablyon, which [ . . . ] are those societies in which black people are held captive” (502) and at the “center of the Rastafarian political perspective is the complete rejection of Babylon” (503). If Babylon is applied to cyberspace, this also implies that cyberspace is seen as a controlling, powerful, or confining system. They do not have a desire to transcend the body using cyberspace. It is not seen as a “bodiless exaltation” with its heaven-like connotation, rather it represents something oppressive. Furthermore, the fact that Case uses cyberspace as a means of escapism also directly contradicts the Rastafarian’s views in that they “contend that a better life is a possibility in this world and not in a transcendental realm residing beyond this physical domain” (502). This suggests that transcending the body is not a “bodily exaltation” and is seen as something negative. Overall, this supports the Zionites resentment of cyberspace. To them, cyberspace is Babylon as they see its power and control over people’s lives and the possibility of corruption.
Finally, as Case begins to accept his body more, a desire to transcend as a means of escape is reduced. Fair claims that “for Case, the body eventually becomes a place of security and belonging - self acceptance - in contrast to the insecurity and alienation of cyberspace” (99). Case begins to see his body as something familiar. Toward the end of the novel, there is an instance when Case blacks out and wakes in “his own darkness, pulse and blood, the one where he’d always slept, being his eyes and no other’s” (Gibson 290). Case’s identity that was once founded only in cyberspace and his ability to jack in and escape his body and his reality, is soon adapted as he “realizes that his body is a data system and accepts his intimate connection with it” (Fair 101). Additionally, the Rastafarians (Zionites) contribute to this acceptance. According to Fair, “Maelcum [Zionite] both explicitly assists and implicitly underscores Case’s acceptance of his physical self” (93). This is seen in the way Maelcum’s dub music helps bring Case out of cyberspace. Their music “was called dub, a sensuous mosaic cooked from vast libraries of digitalized pop; it was worship, Molly said, and a sense of community” (Gibson 116). This suggests community, companionship, humanity, and it is this promise that perhaps draws case out of flatlining in the “alienation of cyberspace” (Fair 94). It was “through Maelcum’s dub music - a simulation of the beat of ‘meat-heart’ that draws the flatlined Case out of Neuromancer’s simulation-universe by offering persistent, unwavering, alternative sound that has a modest, distinct, integral identity” (Csicsery-Ronay 228). In the end, the “Rastas highlight the fact that Case’s identity is built on the alienating system that the matrix represents” (Fair 93). By the end of the novel Case throws a shuriken at the screen on his wall, stating “I don’t need you” (Gibson 297). His acceptance of his body allows him to leave behind cyberspace and a desire to transcend as a means of escape. Instead he is able to get his body fixed up with “a new pancreas and liver” (297), “he finds work and he finds a girl who called herself Michael” (297). In leaving behind cyberspace, Case seems to find peace. He does not need to escape any longer, he does not need a virtual reality.
A desire to transcend the body is represented in the novel, especially in the character Case and his desire to escape his reality and flesh prison via cyberspace. His identity is initially founded in cyberspace and his job as a cyberspace cowboy. However, it is through acceptance of his body that he ultimately finds freedom. Although the novel starts with depicting a strong desire to transcend the human body, it ends with an acceptance of the body. This perhaps suggests a criticism on humanity and the constant progression in technology that comes with both benefits and consequences.
The novel suggests that perhaps it is not transcending the human body that is the problem, but rather it is the motivation behind this desire that could be the problem.
Calleja Gordon. “Digital Games and Escapism.” ames and Cultur 5.4 (2010): 335–353. Sage Journals.eb.
Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. “The sentimental futurist: Cybernetics and art in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” Critique 33.3 (1992): 221-240. aylor & Francis Onlin.Web.
Fair, Benjamin. “Stepping Razor in Orbit: Postmodern Identity and Political Alternatives in William Gibson's Neuromancer.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fictio 46.2: (2005): 92–103. Taylo & Francis Online.eb.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. The Orion Publishing Group, 2016. Print.
Kebede, Alemseghed, and J. David Knottnerus. “Beyond the Pales of Babylon: The Ideational Components and Social Psychological Foundations of Rastafari.” ociological Perspective, 41:3 (1998): 499–517. Web.
Rachael did her BA in English Language and Culture and is now doing a Literary Research Master with a focus on ethics and morality in Gothic and Victorian literature. She loves fairytales and pretty books, and spends her free time with her cats Collin and Rocket.