by Andrew Pilsch
Published December 2015
Corporate culture is often considered banal because of its aesthetic productions: corporate art—trivializations of early 20th-century avant-garde in the form of bland abstract sculptures and mass-produced impressionist paintings—or laughably square training videos that frequently circulate virally through social media. These forms suggest that corporate culture—austere, sentimental, beige, bland, safe, microaggressive, bureaucratic, conformist—is a formation necessary to safely manage the multinational, multifaceted ambitions of such a massive human agglomeration. Corporate culture is bland by design, a function of the lowest common denominator necessary to manage the seething masses of humanity that make up the corporate body.
Banal corporate aesthetics, the chrome that defined the cyberpunk aesthetic, are the background for much of the action of William Gibson’s classic novel of the globalized corporation, Neuromancer. In Neuromancer, the hyper-specific signifiers of the streets are contrasted to the uniformity of a dominant corporate culture. In this note, I address Gibson’s insect imagery in this context to trouble the common understanding of the novel, its commentary on corporate culture, and its relationship to a then-emergent posthumanism. Further, I conclude by suggesting that, for Gibson, the insect hive as an image for the corporate body shows that corporate culture is, in contrast to the banal image the term brings to mind, a set of nefarious cultural techniques derived for interfacing human bodies with the corporation’s native environment in the postmodern era: the abstractions of data.
The most-cited scene in Neuromancer for discussing the novel’s pattern of insect imagery is the moment when, in a dream, the main character Case recalls trying to rid his slum apartment of a wasp nest. As he knocks the nest off its perch, it splits open:
Horror. The spiral birth factory, stepped terraces of hatching cells, blind jaws of the unborn moving ceaselessly, the staged progress from egg to larva, near-wasp, wasp . . . revealing the thing as the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien. (Gibson 126)
Fig. 1 Active Wasp Nest. Photo by Kathy Jones. Wikimedia Commons. 31 2009. JPEG.
In his dream, Case sees “the T-A logo of Tessier-Ashpool neatly embossed into its side, as though the wasps themselves had worked it there” (Gibson 127), thereby establishing a connection in Case’s mind (and the reader’s) between Tessier-Ashpool (TA) and this “hideous” perfection. Later in the novel, 3Jane, one of TA’s cloned corporate brood, also describes TA as a “hive” due to their incestuous cloning practices and the isolated “seamless universe of self” they create in their orbital home of Straylight (Gibson 229, 173).
Given TA’s strange sexual and corporate mores, a common reading of Neuromancer is to connect Gibson’s insects to perversity. Claire Sponsler argues that TA’s “attempt to reformulate their own subjectivity becomes not only self-destructive but also evil” and that its “incestuous, selfish, hedonistic existence” is “a lesson in the dangers of tampering with human identity” (Sponsler 638–639). Similarly, Graham J. Murphy suggests that the horror of TA’s “inbred perversities” counters the many examples provided by feminist science fiction criticism “of thinking positively around insect difference” (Murphy 267). Perhaps most forthrightly, Anne Weinstone highlights that
Gibson uses the wasp hive to link a relentless technology of alien reproduction and the “bad” corporate Tessier-Ashpool family with its techno-fascist, incestuous, cloning ways. But these exist in terrible rhetorical proximity to the ‘good’ scene of romantic, proper, and historically sanctioned reproduction. (52–53)
For Weinstone, the ending of the novel, in which the events of Case’s life following the action of the novel are summarized as “He found work. / He found a girl who called herself Michael,” represents the “good” sexuality that has produced humans for generations in contrast to the “bad” sexuality of the wasp nest’s biological machine gun (Gibson 268).
Weinstone continues by suggesting that
Insects manifest Gibson’s anxiety about losing his humanity and his human body, made tenuously visible through a display of the ‘natural’ urges and intuitions of heterosexual reproduction. As evidenced by the rhetorical infestation between the two scenes, the threat of loss is a critical, if not a permanent condition. (53)
In general, Weinstone’s analysis is the most thorough at outlining the general shape of arguments about insects in Neuromancer: the horror they evoke in Case signifies Gibson’s commitment to a retrogressive humanism and his own fear of loss of humanity in the face of computerization.
Similarly, Gibson’s retrogressive humanism is also a theme in two prominent works on insects in contemporary culture. In Jussi Parrika’s Insect Media, the use of insects in the film Teknolust is meant to counteract a favoritism for the “geometrical data structure” in Gibson with “an imaginative view of biodigital creatures as affective, interacting, folding in with various cultural forces” (Parikka 176). Parrika suggests that Teknolust, which combines insects and computers in productive ways, acts as a counterpoint to the sterile and lifeless world imagined by Gibson. Despite being a book about insects in the media, Parrika bafflingly ignores the pattern of wasp imagery in Gibson’s novel. Along similar lines, Scott Bukatman has noted that “insects are only the most evident metaphorical process conflating a number of irreconcilable terms such as life/non-life, biology/technology, human/ machine” in Bruce Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist stories, which Bukatman finds more suggestive for thinking the posthuman body than Neuromancer, again focusing on the lifeless abstractions which critical consensus has agreed the book is about while ignoring the repeated pattern of insect imagery (Bukatman 361).
In the first cluster of readings, Gibson’s insects are connected to an uncanny and posthuman sexual practice; in the second, the insect metaphors are ignored in favor of rejecting the novel for its commitment to a sterile, desexualized posthuman vision of cold steel and cool glass. Both readings are inadequate, I argue. As I unpack below, the focusing on TA and the incestuous Villa Straylight on the one hand and ignoring the seething insect metaphorics of the novel on the other both miss the complex tale about posthuman being that the wasp hive tells us.
Specifically, while the wasp hive obviously connects to the Tessier-Ashpool clan, Gibson also uses wasp imagery to describe two characters who more closely associate with the banal corporate culture we more readily imagine when we think of the multinational as a cultural entity. Early in the novel, the character of Molly, a cybernetically-enhanced warrior, is described as “regarding” Case with “an insect calm” (Gibson 30). Molly’s body, remade into a weapon of corporate espionage through cybernetic enhancement, is a functionary in a much larger corporate ecosystem. And as such, Gibson describes this slickly affectless, freelance corporate employee in terms of the smooth, reflective carapace of the insect: uncaring and moving about her life in service of the hive.
This becoming-insect of the corporate drone is, however, best exemplified by Armitage. Like Molly, Armitage, the corporate zombie, has a smile that “meant as much as the twitch of some insect’s antenna” (Gibson 97). A veteran of a nuclear world war between the US and the USSR, Armitage was involved with an experimental form of computer hacking deployed on a fool’s errand in the final days of the war. Traumatized by the failure of the mission and the subsequent revelation of his betrayal by his commanders, Armitage has a psychotic break that leaves him in a vegetative state, until the artificial intelligence Wintermute discovers him and reprograms him with the façade of a personality. In this newly remixed state, Armitage becomes the perfect corporate insect-subject:
You see a guy like that, you figure there’s something he does when he’s alone. But not Armitage. Sits and stares at the wall. Then something clicks and he goes into high gear and wheels for Wintermute. (Gibson 95)
For all the horrors associated with TA, Armitage is perhaps the insectile individual who is the most truly disturbing. In rebuilding his shattered persona, Wintermute, the malevolent computer program, creates the perfect vision of corporate subjecthood: staring at a wall until needed.
In this manner, TA’s network of clones mimics Armitage’s corporate subjecthood. As it is explained to Case,
The reason Straylight’s not exactly hoppin’ with Tessier-Ashpools is that they’re mostly in cold sleep. There’s a law firm in London keeps track of their powers of attorney. Has to know who’s awake and exactly when. (Gibson 190)
Just like Armitage, the various clones are kept cryogenically frozen until they are needed for specific functions of the corporate family. The perversity discussed above, however, emerges in scenes where readers learn that the various members of this cloned brood are engaging in sexually violent contact with one another. Sponsler, Murphy, and Weinstone all mention TA as perverse in their accounting of the wasp scene, and Weinstone most specifically uses this perversity to comment on fears about the loss of humanity. The rhetorical move in each of these analyses is from corporate dronehood to perverse sexuality. Weinstein makes this suggestion and also asserts that the fascistic violence often associated with multinationals is homologous to the sexual violence of the Tessier-Ashpools.
However, in also considering the wasp imagery associated with Molly and, especially, Armitage—two characters who have been remade into tools of corporate culture—I argue that what is actually perverse about Tessier-Ashpool is not their humanity, as Weinstone figures it. The corruption of the Tessier-Ashpools is not a corruption of the flesh but of the possibilities inherent in the corporate form for remaking humanity, for becoming a more perfect hive. As Molly relates about a conversation with Wintermute: “He said if they’d turned into what they’d wanted to, he could’ve gotten out a long time ago. But they didn’t. Screwed up” (Gibson 178). Wintermute implies that the family wanted to become something else, something truly new and inhuman, but instead of becoming a fully functioning human machine, it became, as 3Jane describes it, “a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly” (Gibson 170).
By becoming Gothic, the family represents not a corruption of the human, however, but of the corporate form itself. Marred by infighting, sexual jealousies among cloned siblings, and other decidedly Gothic plot elements, the freeze-thaw cycle of the family parodies both the “biological equivalent of a machine gun” and its human analog: the multinational corporation. As Gibson writes, the properly functioning corporate form is the truest form of human immortality possible:
The zaibatsus, the multinationals, that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory . . . Wintermute and the nest. Phobic vision of the hatching wasps, time-lapse machine gun of biology. But weren’t the zaibatsus more like that, or the Yakuza, hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA coded in silicon? (Gibson 203)
Rather than the banal art and various lowest-common-denominator driven practices mentioned in the introduction, corporate culture in Neuromancer is aligned with the horror Case feels at the inhuman perfection of the insect hive.
Thus, Gibson’s retreat into a comfortable, heterosexual humanism at the novel’s end, as Weinstone suggests, becomes problematic. The common misreading of the novel is that TA is the posthuman and Case’s “girl who called herself Michael” is the human and that those are the two positions Gibson offers readers in the novel. By carefully following Gibson’s insect imagery, we can actually find four positions: a perverse corporate posthumanism (TA), a non-perverse corporate posthumanism (the zaibatsus), a heterosexual humanism (the “girl who called herself Michael”), and an alien inhumanism (whatever results from the union of Wintermute and Neuromancer).
If Gibson is on the side of any of these positions at the end, it is not, as Weinstone suggests, the human, especially given what the computer says to Case at the end. Discussing its life after the action of the book, the computer suggests how it spends its time:
“I talk to my own kind.”
“But you’re the whole thing. Talk to yourself?”
“There’s others. I found one already. Series of transmissions recorded over a period of eight years, in the nineteen-seventies. ’Til there was me, natch, there was nobody to know, nobody to answer.”
“Oh,” Case said. “Yeah? No shit?”
“No shit.” (Gibson 270)
Casually (“no shit”), the computer reveals that it has made contact with alien artificial intelligence, something that the history of science fiction tells us should be a monumental, world-changing event. Instead, it is casually moved over, as one would a discussion of the weather at a cocktail party.
The computer, then, at the novel’s end, would seem to be the driving force in human history, unlike humans themselves, whose efforts at space colonization Gibson sardonically dismisses as: “Human DNA spreading out from gravity’s steep well like an oilslick” (Gibson 101). If anything, the novel is a lesson in how the three other positions (perverse and non-perverse corporate posthumanism and the human) fail to accomplish the more profound goal brought about by the inhuman computer. So, not only is Gibson not on the side of the human, as Weinstone suggests, the book is not even on the side of the posthuman in the end.
What we see in Tessier-Ashpool is the ultimate failure of the human form to adapt itself to the information networks that are the native home of the inhuman computer. Our limited lifespan and squishy memories only allow us to approximate the alien being of AI, a being of pure data. However, TA, which tried to become more like the computer, is ultimately shown to have failed, and by extension, reveals how humans always fail to accomplish this goal. Even with the direct brain interface of the datajack, our intellects cannot be made to natively inhabit the net.
Fig. 2: Still of Failed Interface in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 19 Nov. 2015. Author’s Screenshot. JPEG.
However, Gibson does construct the multinational corporation as a slightly more successful interface through which humanity is more capable of interacting with the transnational flows of information that make up the data networks that were so radical at the time of the novel’s publication. For Gibson, the corporate form, understood as a kind of perfect biological machine gun, not unlike the wasp nest, uses humans as a medium to attain a more perfect union with the computational. This use of humans as a medium connects to the drone-like behavior of Case, Molly, and Armitage more than the incestuous perversity of TA but links all these characters into an insect hive model of data-driven posthumanity.
As documented in the media studies work of Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Siegert, media are made to appear similarly agential, programming human minds and bodies through a series of “cultural techniques” (Kultertechnik). First used to describe the reshaping of the land for more efficient agricultural purposes, cultural techniques, as described by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, came to represent the process of boundary creation, “distinction between the cultivated land and its natural other” (Winthrop-Young 381). Connecting this to media studies, Winthrop-Young continues, “these elementary techniques are linked to bodies. Learning to write requires years of physical drill involving posture, grip, and all the tortures of calligraphic training. The same applies to modern reading habits” (Winthrop-Young 383). For German media studies, cultural techniques describe the highly unnatural practices of the body involved in, say, learning to write, and the term retains a taint of this agricultural imagery: writing as a technical system of practices inseminates and cultivates a specific crop of useful processes in the fertile minds and bodies of humans. This ominously inhuman tone is especially at play in Gibson’s account of the corporation as a media form.
Within this framework, Bernard Siegert defines media as “code-generating or code-destroying interfaces between cultural orders and a real that cannot be symbolized” (Siegert 62). In this definition, media exist at the barrier between culture and some domain of reality that cannot be taken up into culture, some unknowable kernel that always recedes from our grasping. Cultural techniques, then, are the disciplines of the body and of the mind that allow us to operate with these media.
As Gibson makes clear throughout Neuromancer, the multinational corporation is an entity that exceeds the human on logistical, intellectual, spatial, and temporal scales. Operating in terms of numbers (in the trillions) larger in size than the human mind seems capable of processing, the global flows of money boggle our sensoria, calling out for something like the mind of a hive—whether a biological machine gun or an emergent network intelligence.
Fig. 3: Detail of Mapping the Internet. Designed by Barrett Lyon. Photo: Sean Scanlan. MoMA. 9 Jan. 2014. JPEG.
The corporation, as a medium, becomes an interface between the small minds and short lives of its human capital and the infinite scales of financial data. However, given the final revelation of the computer’s extraterrestrial contact, even this form is not enough.
Thus, we can conclude that for all of Gibson’s supposed commitments to the posthuman, as documented to some degree in all the scholarship on insects in Neuromancer cited above, the novel is actually about the failure of both the human and the posthuman. For Gibson, the networks of data that the corporation manipulates for its livelihood represent Siegert’s “real that cannot be symbolized.” The human body and mind can only be processed to approximate the functioning of the computer. The only possible triumph in the novel is the inhuman intelligence created at the end.
This lesson of the failure of the human to adapt to digital technologies, in retrospect, has been a pronounced theme in Gibson’s oeuvre (contrasting the claim, as in Parrika’s Insect Media, that the novels celebrate a chrome and cool aesthetic of posthuman data cowboys). For example, Spook Country hinges on chasing missing millions of dollars amongst a corrupt war machine that looted billions, and The Peripheral hinges on a small-time real estate scam perpetrated by two bored posthumans. In each of these cases, we see that humans—greedy, petty, short-lived—always fail to become something else. Tessier-Ashpool’s descent into Gothic horror is another of these failures. Only in Neuromancer do we also see the failure of the corporate form to transcend itself. Only here do we also see the failure of posthuman collectivity.
Bukatman, Scott. “Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System (Cartes Du Système Solaire Posthumain).” Science Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991): 343–357. Web. 22 June 2015.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
Murphy, Graham J. “Considering Her Ways: In(ter)secting Matriarchal Utopias.” Science Fiction Studies 35.2 (2008): 266–280. Web. 22 June 2015.
Parikka, Jussi. Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.
Siegert, Bernhard. “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory.” Theory, Culture & Society 30.6 (2013): 48–65. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.
Sponsler, Claire. “Cyberpunk and the Dilemmas of Postmodern Narrative: The Example of William Gibson.” Contemporary Literature 33.4 (1992): 625–644. Web. 22 June 2015.
Weinstone, Ann. Avatar Bodies: A Tantra for Posthumanism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004. Print.
Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. “The Kultur of Cultural Techniques: Conceptual Inertia and the Parasitic Materialities of Ontologization.” Cultural Politics 10.3 (2014): 376–388. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.
Fig. 1: Jones, Kathy. Active Wasp Nest. Wikimedia Commons. 31 July 2009. JPEG.
Fig. 2: Still of Failed Interface in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 19 Nov. 2015. Author’s Screenshot. JPEG.
Fig. 3: Lyon, Barrett. Detail of Mapping the Internet. Open Source Data Collection and Representation, The Opte Project. MoMA. Photograph: Sean Scanlan. 9 Jan. 2014. JPEG.
Andrew Pilsch is an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University, specializing in the history and theory of rhetoric, digital humanities, and critical theory. His work traces intersections between the digital turn in culture and new contextualizations of the human in science and philosophy. His book on transhumanism and contemporary utopian rhetoric is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press.