M a r k   E v e r g l a d e

Cyberpunk: Gender Roles and Class through a Post-Modern Lens Pg.1

"The new hacking undertaken by cyberpunks alters the body, alters identity, and so too society. Everything is hackable."
- Dr. Joseph Hurtgen
Cover of The Archive Incarnate book of cyberpunk criticismPicture of Dr. Joseph Hurtgen, cyberpunk author and critic against a brick wall

A discussion between Mark Everglade and Dr. Joseph Hurtgen

William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan and others jumpstarted cyberpunk in the ‘80s as a movement to challenge a staid science fiction genre. Oddly enough, cyberpunk was originally expressed as a new type of literature (read the title Neuromancer for the pun, new writer or new writings). Cyberpunk focused on artistry and explored themes much more complex than the then empty but expected space exploration yarn. Though cyberpunk is now often synonymous with cybersleaze, Fredric Jameson describes cyberpunk as the apotheosis of the postmodern narrative. Hurtgen identifies postmodernism as a time period, an artistic movement, and a philosophical position while describing the various ways it intersects with cyberpunk fiction.

Dr. Joseph Hurtgen (pictured) has published two science fiction novels, Sherman: A Novel (2019) and Tower Defender (2017). His scholarly articles have been published in numerous literary journals showcasing his expertise and analysis on writers such as Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood. The following interview references his lifetime of research on science fiction, as culminated in the book The Archive Incarnate, The Embodiment and Transmission of Knowledge in Science Fiction. Drawing on Foucault and other theorists, he provides an intricate analysis of everything from Dune to The Diamond Age within the book as he takes us on a philosophical exposition of sci-fi and the social implications of its constructions. Hurtgen’s first novel, Tower Defender, and his current work-in-progress tae-kwon-GO both appropriate cyberpunk tropes, exploring cyberpunk’s myths and meanings.

Mark: Sterling and Gibson cite various post-modern writings as important to, especially, their early work, including Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition and Arthur Kroker’s The Postmodern Scene. Before we get into cyberpunk, could you give us a foundation for post-modernism with an eye to gender roles and the awakening of class consciousness?

Cyberpunk and Postmodernism
Joseph: Class consciousness and gender roles are directly related to questions of post-modernism. It's helpful to start with the notion of post-modernism as an era coming after the period between the two world wars filled with uncertainty about the stability of government, questioning of reality, a challenging of social norms regarding gender, and an economy in flux, pinballing from the heyday of '20s speculative trading to the complete international collapse of the '30s to the discovery of the military-industrial complex economy of the '40s and '50s, simultaneously producing engines of death and wealth. So the foundation for post-modernism is that chaos was averted. Yes, tens of millions of people died from wars and disease and starvation but now there's actually more people in the world and we're sustained by forever wars and expanding multinational consumer societies.

Mark: It's interesting that you connect the foundation of postmodernism as an era to an aversion of chaos. Some would say that what enabled us to avert chaos was a strong application of science and grand theory. The irony is that these are the very things that post-modern philosophers such as Baudrillard and Foucault are/were antagonistic against. People within their camp believe it was science and grand theory that led us to the chaos and atrocities during the World Wars that caused such undermining to begin with, such as the nationalism fueled by the eugenics movement, which was supported by not only people like Charles Galton and Charles Cooley, but also the statisticians that provided the basis for the modernization of science, Robert Fisher and Karl Pearson. Post-modern philosophy romances chaos in order to avoid it.

Enlightenment and Consumerism:
Joseph: Consumerism is indeed a large part of the cyberpunk puzzle. By the '90s you could eat the same McDonalds hamburger in Russia, the USA, France, or Japan. And, pick your locale, you could feel the same invisible dread of terrorism, nuclear suitcase bombs, gas attacks in the subway, cancer generated from Fordist food factories. Importantly, the post-modern world is a world that doesn't believe it's improving. The Nazi death camps were proof itself that the European enlightenment project doesn't end in goodwill and brotherhood but eugenics, occult blood pacts, and mass graves of peoples' mothers and grandfathers. But we're not beyond it once we hit post-modernism. Post-modernism affords new versions of exploitation: wage slavery, endo-colonization, mass surveillance, the rise of multinationals in banking, technology, foods, goods, services.

Mark: Cyberpunk really captures those new versions of exploitation well, and you’re right, that does tie into an awakening of class consciousness. Thomas Foster (2006, citing Lawrence Grosberg), writes, “(Cyberpunk emerges not as) the vanguard of a posthumanism assumed to be revolutionary in itself, but instead an attempt to intervene in and diversify what posthumanism can mean.” Ambiguating the comment a bit, I believe that cyberpunk is not calling for a revolution per se, but is exploring the ideas of social organization in a critical manner. What is unique is that its position of critique of late capitalism as a whole is not one that is inherently of a liberal or conservative mindset. It is not a value-laden application of a Frankfurt school Critical Theory, though Mercuse’s (1964) maxim, consumerism as social control, is appropriate to describe the approach. This provides cyberpunk greater mass-audience appeal despite its underground nature.