Myth, Technology, and the (Post)Human Subject in William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy

Master's Thesis, 2004

60 Pages, Grade: Distinction


Table of Contents


List of Abbreviations


Technological Myths and Mythical Technologies
Myths of the technological subject: the Cyborg and the Net

Virtual Realities and Myths of the Human Subject
Possessed Individuals and Possessive Technologies
Three Facets of one Net: Holography, Simstim, and the Matrix

Cyborgs as Possessed or Possessive Individuals?




First of all, I would like to thank Michael Rossington, who made it possible for me to enter the MA in Literary Studies: Writing, Memory, Culture despite my lack of a first degree. Thanks, too, to my dissertation supervisor, John Beck, whose assistance and guidance proved more than just a bit helpful.

Moreover, I want to thank my mates Mike and David for their good company as well as all the dinners, pints, and inspiring conversations we enjoyed together.

My very special thanks goes to my parents for their primarily – but not only - financial support, without which I would not have been able to come to England in the first place. The list would not be complete without expressing my deep debt to my girlfriend, Annika, who was a steady presence despite our spatial separation.

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt


This study will show how William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy blends high-tech and myth in order to articulate an oxymoronic tension between what I will call possessed and possessive individualism. Focusing on how Gibson’s fiction both embraces technology’s potential for undermining traditional categories and, at the same time, encodes a nostalgic longing for the stable identities generated by these very categories this study will investigate how Gibson’s literary construction of two particular technologies, namely the cyborg and the net, affects ideas of signification, subjectivity, and identity.


The oft-cited first sentence of William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer – “[t]he sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” – conjures up technology to describe nature “in a metaphor that blurs the distinctions between the organic and the artificial” (Gibson 1995a:9 emphasis in original; Hollinger 1991:205). The publication of Neuromancer, which is the first novel in Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy,” marked the rise of a Science Fiction sub-genre that has become known as cyberpunk. According to Larry McCaffrey, the emergence of cyberpunk can be situated in the context of a postmodern culture which is informed by and closely linked to radical technological change – change that undermines hitherto stable boundaries between the organic and the artificial, the original and the copy, the self and the other (McCaffery 1991:5-9). In fact, a postmodern concern with the uncertainty and undecidability brought about by the encroachment of technologies, such as virtual reality and cybernetics, into more and more domains of human existence, forms one of the main features of cyberpunk. In permeating all aspects of human life and in infiltrating even the human body these technologies subvert traditional distinctions which have always seemed to clearly delineate the relations between human beings and their environs. In his “Cyborgs and Generic Oxymorons” Timo Siivonen argues that the confusion caused by this implosion of traditional boundaries is “inscribed in the language of literature as oxymoronic undecidability” (Siivonen 1996:227 my emphasis). This term aptly describes the implications of the blurring in Gibson’s fiction of the distinctions between technology and mythology – an issue that will be central to this study.

The hypertechnological world of Gibson’s novels “abounds with references to mythology and lore ranging from Rastafarian beliefs and practices to traditional icons such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon” (Cavallaro 2000:54). Even the global computer network – the matrix – a purely informational space comprised of the logical patterns of binary code seethes with mythical entities such as ghosts, demons and even gods.

However, before looking closely at the relations between mythology and technology in the three novels of Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy” (Neuromancer; Count Zero; Mona Lisa Overdrive), I wish to outline some of the more theoretical concerns underlying my arguments. I will draw mainly on Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Lacan which I find particularly useful in that he attempts to forge Lacan’s often very idiosyncratic and disparate thoughts, that are more concerned with psychoanalytic practice than with theory-construction, into a challenging and often inspiring theoretical edifice that, nonetheless, remains open-ended and fluid enough not to fall into the trap of theoretical rigidity. Alongside Žižek’s, I will also utilize many of Jean Baudrillard’s ideas, especially those concerning hyperreality and simulation. Ideas by other theorists will also provide different perspectives and a wider focus on the objects of my examination. My theoretical discussions will frame the whole study and I will come back to them in both my two chapters and the conclusion.

Technological Myths and Mythical Technologies

In their seminal book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno locate the source of modernization and its vicissitudes in the enlightenment conception of rational knowledge as a tool to “conquer superstition, [and] to rule over a disenchanted nature” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:2). They state that enlightenment aims at exorcising myth and replacing it by techno-scientific knowledge:

It [enlightenment] wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge. [...] Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly masters. [...] Technology is the essence of this knowledge (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:2).

Technology, thus, seems to emerge as an antonym of mythology. Technology apparently consists in the rational application of scientific knowledge, whereas mythology comes to be linked to the irrational and the supernatural. Looking at the etymological roots of these two words, however, one finds a considerable overlap in their respective meanings. Mythology derives from the Greek word mûthos meaning a “fictitious narrative usu. involving supernatural things” and is frequently associated with bodies of legends and fictions (Onions 1966:601). At the etymological root of technology lies the Greek word tékhnē which denotes ‘art’ or ‘craft’ (Onions 1966:906). Technology’s association with ‘art’ and the construction of something out of raw materials supplied not only by nature, but also by human imagination, somehow undermines its exclusive alignment with the rational. Art may thus be seen as both a peculiar mode of technology and – through its use of mythical subject matter – as a possible link between technology and mythology. Owing to the fact that it relates to the construction of narratives, mythology, at same time, also has a profound technological dimension (Cavallaro 2000:42). According to Michel Foucault, the advent of Enlightenment thought, or what he describes as a reconfiguration of the “entire episteme of Western culture,” marked a rupture in the sense that it drew a clear demarcation line between the rational application of scientific knowledge in technology and mythological imagination expressed in works of art (Foucault 2002:55-64 emphasis in original). For Adorno and Horkheimer, however, enlightenment becomes – through a dialectical twist – its own myth:

Just as myths already entail enlightenment, with every step enlightenment entangles itself more deeply in mythology. Receiving all its subject matter from myths, in order to destroy them, it falls as judge under the spell of myth (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:8).

Mythology constructs bodies of narratives which confer meaning upon an apparently meaningless world; while technology produces material objects that enable us to control nature. Mythology already constitutes a technology of control insofar as – through the production of narratives – it provides a kind of knowledge which is necessary to engage in a meaningful interaction with both nature and fellow human beings. Enlightenment’s programme of technological knowledge can thus be read as mythology brought to its extreme – to the point of self-negation. Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectical analysis inverts this point of self-negation to show that it coincides with the point of departure. They point out that the denial of its mythical foundations is the Enlightenment’s own myth. Or as Slavoj Žižek puts it:

The philosophical overcoming of myth is not simply a letting-behind of the mythical, but a constant struggle with(in) it: philosophy needs the recourse to myth, not only for external reasons, in order to explain its conceptual teaching to the uneducated masses but inherently, to ‘suture’ its own conceptual edifice where it fails to reach its innermost core [...]. Myth is thus the Real of logos: the foreign intruder impossible to get rid of, impossible to remain fully within it (Žižek 2001:11 emphasis in original).

As we have seen above, technology and mythology seem to share a human concern with the exertion of control over nature, fellow human beings, and the self. Human beings are often characterized as tool-makers. But maybe the making of stories or rather myths is as characteristic of humanity as the making of tools. In the following statement Donna Haraway states quite explicitly that the dividing line between myth and tool is not as clear-cut as one might suspect:

The boundary is permeable between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge. Indeed myth and tool mutually constitute each other (Haraway 1991:164).

Generally speaking, objects, understood in the widest sense as encompassing both immaterial products such as narratives and material objects such as tools, thus serve the same purpose: they enable human beings to exert control over both the environment and other humans. This may be deemed to be their most general use-value. Under the conditions of capitalist commodity exchange, however, “the structural dimension” of objects, their exchange-value, becomes more significant than the functional or referential dimension of their use-value (Baudrillard 1993:6-9). Technologically produced objects, or more precisely commodities, have become part of the network of the signifier, while signification itself enters the “third order of simulacra,” our current era of simulation in which reality is preceded by, and generated from, models, in a free play of signifiers that refer only to other signifiers (Baudrillard 1993:50; 1994:1-2). The aforementioned use-value of objects does not disappear; it is rather inscribed into their exchange-value, for the free exchange of both signs and objects makes for a much more efficient control over reality. Reality can now be simulated through and generated by models which are the products of a free exchange of signs and objects. Both the bodies of fictions which constitute mythology and technologically produced commodities participate in the network of signification; they are an integral part of the symbolic order. We not only consume technologically mass-produced objects, but also the myths they are made to tell through advertising. Technology, therefore, not only produces tangible objects, but also “‘products’ that are essentially reproductions or abstractions – images, advertising, information, memories, styles, simulated experiences, and copies of original experiences” (McCaffery 1991:4 emphasis in original). All these “reproductions and abstractions” can be lumped together under the term ‘virtuality’. In her book How We Became Posthuman N. Katherine Hayles offers the following definition of virtuality:

Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by informational patterns. [...] Virtual reality technologies are fascinating because they make visually immediate the perception that a world of information exists parallel to the “real” world, the former intersecting the latter at many points and in many ways (Hayles 1999:13-14 emphasis in original).

In Western post-industrial societies technology increasingly produces virtualities that intersect the world of objects to an ever greater extent. Mythology, then, may be considered as a very particular informational flow that traverses both the virtual world of information and the actual world of material objects. Under the conditions of advanced capitalism technology is completely interpenetrated by mythology; they come to fuse both in the material and immaterial manifestations of the commodity form.

Myths of the technological subject: the Cyborg and the Net

Two distinct but interrelated techno-myths that partake both of the technological order of reality and the imaginary order of fiction (inasmuch as this distinction still holds in the light of the above-outlined textual space they seem to share) are of particular significance for my argument: the cyborg and the net. The cyborg as a material entity incorporates natural and artificial, organic and inorganic elements; it subverts the boundaries between the human and the non-human, the technological and the biological, the original and the copy, the self and the other. The net, on the other hand, in its distinct but inextricably intertwined manifestations of virtual realities and simulations, constitutes an electronic, conceptual space which is structured by the binary series of the digital code (Gaggi 2003:125).

In what follows I will explore how the figures of the cyborg and the net feature in Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy and to what extent these two figures exemplify a fusion of technology and mythology. The first part of this paper will deal with the figure of the net. I will argue that “the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace” may be read in terms of Lacan’s concept of the symbolic order (Gibson 1995c:62).

In what Žižek identifies as the third and last period of Lacan’s teaching, the symbolic order, the “big Other” is the network of the signifier which structures what we perceive as reality. At the very heart of the symbolic order, however, lies a traumatic, real kernel which cannot be integrated into the symbolic fabric of the network of the signifier. We have to note the crucial difference between reality, which is structured or even produced by the symbolic order, and “the Real” which is a pre-symbolic kernel which lies at the very heart of the symbolic order (Žižek 1989:133). Fantasy, for Lacan, is a construction which helps us to come to terms with this traumatic kernel:

The crucial point that must be made here on a theoretical level is that fantasy functions as an imaginary scenario filling out the void, the opening of the desire of the Other; by giving us a definite answer to the question ‘What does the Other want?’, it enables us to evade the unbearable deadlock in which the Other wants something from us, but we are at the same time incapable of translating this desire of the Other into a positive interpellation, into a mandate with which to identify (Žižek 1989:114-5 emphasis in original).

The important point to be grasped is that this void in the Other is precisely the non-symbolizable Real at the very heart of the symbolic order. Fantasy, thus, fills in the gaps opened up in the symbolic order by this pre-symbolic kernel. Paradoxically, the Real is both “the hard impenetrable kernel resisting symbolization and a pure chimerical entity which has in itself no ontological consistency” (Žižek 1989:169 emphasis in original). Although it does not exist it still produces positive effects in the sense that it causes what a subject experiences as distortions in the symbolic order. The Real is, thus, not something beyond the symbolic order – another dimension beyond appearances – “it not only appears within appearances, it is also nothing but its own appearance”; it appears in fantasy which does not mask something beyond appearance, but rather the traumatic fact that there is nothing but appearance (Žižek 1991:xxvvii). Accordingly, Gibson’s Matrix can be read as an externalized and completely virtualized symbolic order, where sensory experience is structured by the binary series of the digital code – combinations of 1s and 0s.

Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum immediately springs to mind in this context. The matrix may be conceived as a simulacrum, a copy without original, an image which is no longer distinguishable from the real (Baudrillard 1994:1-2). The simulacrum, however, does not undermine the demarcation line between the image and the Real (in the above-outlined Lacanian sense); it rather subverts the boundary line between actual reality and simulated virtual reality[1]. What we are, thus, confronted with in Gibson’s novels is an increasing fusion of the virtualized symbolic order of the matrix and the symbolic order of actuality. These two symbolic orders do, indeed, become more and more indistinguishable for Gibson’s characters (and also his readers). As Douglas Kellner writes:

Throughout the novel [ Neuromancer ], it is not clear if the characters are in ‘real’ space, in computer space, in implanted memory, in simstim space (a computer simulation of reality), or in other realms of cyberspace. Thus the very concept of reality disappears á la Baudrillard and the implosion between ‘reality’ and other dimensions of experience create a new multi-dimensional and disorienting realm of experience (Kellner 1995:310 emphasis in original).

To complicate matters even further, the simulacrum can also be said to undermine the distinction between the symbolic order(s) and the imaginary realm of fantasy (Žižek 1999:195-8). The mythical figures, which seem to be haunting Gibson’s cyberspace, may, therefore, be considered as imaginary scenarios constructed by his characters to fill in what they perceive as inconsistencies in the virtual reality of the matrix – fantasy constructs, however, that in the simulacrum of cyberspace come to merge into the ‘reality’ of the symbolic order so that mythology becomes indistinguishable from technological reality. These fantasies, moreover, mask the fact that there is nothing beyond the increasingly interwoven symbolic orders of actual and virtual reality; they fill in the gaps opened up by the traumatic encounter with the void of the real – or to quote Baudrillard:

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. […] [T]oday one has the impression that history has retreated leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references (Baudrillard 1994:43).

Baudrillard’s use of the term ‘the real’ may be a bit misleading. We have to bear in mind that in this context it is closer to reality than to Lacan’s concept of ‘the Real.’ Generally speaking, Baudrillard’s use of concepts strikes one as highly idiosyncratic. This is maybe one the most problematic features of his work. Apropos his use of ‘real’ Baudrillard himself made the following remarks:

The real is a most ambiguous word – it is at the same time unreal and the limit to every theory of the real. And I would not say that I use this word rigorously. It would make no sense for me because it at once potentializes hyperreality and is the real as such (Baudrillard 1997:45).

According to Žižek’s reading of Lacan, the traumatic encounter with the Real, which is retroactively covered up by fantasy, consists precisely in the realization that the symbolic order is structured around a void, that there are no strong referentials that point at something beyond appearances. Using Arthur Kroker’s concept of “the possessed individual” I will show that in Gibson a complex tension between myths of the possessive and the possessed individual comes to be deployed in an attempt to screen the cracks in the symbolic surface as well as the concomitant anxieties about the self (Kroker 1992:2). Both these fantasies reassert fictions of self in the face of technologies that undermine the very parameters that have always been taken as safeguarding stable identities.

The second part of this study will investigate the figure of the cyborg. In her Cyberpunk and Cyberculture Dani Cavallero writes:

Mythology and technology collude primarily on the territory of corporeality. Mythobodies (bodies forged through the coalescence of the natural and the supernatural) and technobodies (bodies produced by the encounter of the biological and the artificial) are hybrid compounds which underscore the brindled [sic] character of embodied subjectivity. The interplay of reality and fantasy points to the mythobody’s infiltration by technology and to the technobody’s imbrication with mythology (Cavallaro 2000:43).

The body, thus, emerges as a privileged site for the fusion between mythology and technology. Furthermore, the corporeality epitomized by the cyborg does not stand in opposition to the apparently immaterial, purely conceptual space of both the actual symbolic order of reality and the virtual symbolic order of the matrix. On the one hand, the virtual, informational, immaterial datascape of the matrix seems to imply a sort of transcendence of the body which is borne out by the fact that Case disdains the body as meat (Gibson 1995a:12); on the other, the experience of cyberspace still relies on the physical sensorium which is connected to the matrix via a cyberdeck. In her “Signs of Wo/ander” Teresa de Lauretis states:

Technology is now and, not only in a distant, science fictional future, an extension of our sensory capacities; it shapes our perceptions and cognitive processes, mediates our relationship with objects of the material and physical world, and our relationship with our own or other bodies (De Lauretis 1980:167).

As I have argued above, the symbolic order of capitalism also incorporates material objects insofar as they acquire meaning within the signifying system of exchange relations. In societies marked by an increasing significance of consumption the body becomes part of the system of objects:


[1] In order to clarify my terminology I have to add that I treat actuality and virtuality as two different modes of reality.

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Myth, Technology, and the (Post)Human Subject in William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy
University of Newcastle upon Tyne  (School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics)
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Myth, Technology, Subject, William, Gibson, Sprawl, Trilogy
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M.A. Markus Kienscherf (Author), 2004, Myth, Technology, and the (Post)Human Subject in William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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