Friday, April 15, 2005

The Metaphysics behind "All Tomorrow's Parties"

William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties will seem very confusing and, quite likely, somewhat ordinary to readers who don't know its metaphysical background or the intellectual concerns that animate it. Today's lecture outlined a framework for understanding how and why Gibson treats these matters in his fiction.

All Tomorrow's Parties presents us with a fictional world "the-year-after-the-next-year" where (to quote Bob Dylan) "Everything is Broken." The process of social fragmentation here in Vancouver that Douglas Coupland laments in Hey Nostradamus! is become widespread in ATP: families, cities, states & provinces, countries and individual psyches are things of shards and tatters. However, Gibson's text presents an important paradox. The free market system which, in Gibson's fictional outlook, is the cause of this fragmentation is actually growing more unified, and that unification has spreading to the verge of global uniformity. The paradox in encoded in Gibson's plot, which is an eschatological race between the villain (explicitly a Bill Gates-type) and the rag-tag-band-of-heroes (Laney, Chevette, Fontaine, Rydell) to use a new product (a nono-fax machine) supplied ahead of demand - and thus without a known purpose) either for profit-without-end or for the Rapture.

Gibson's metaphysic in his cyberpunk novels -- and in his "idoru" trilogy-so-far (of which ATP is the third) is the evolution from the human (us) to post-human (part us & part not us.) The "non-us," of course, is information technology. In the fourties, Marvin Minsky of MIT famously said "in the future, if we're lucky machines will keep us as pets." That is the view of things behind Gibson's cyberpunk. The fragmentation in ATP will be made whole again by the blending of consciousness and IT. "Rei Toei" -- the Idoru -- becomes a cybernetic Messiah, emerging in transcendent form simultaneously from every 7-Eleven-type store around the globe. And here in the non-fiction realm, even if Minsky's remark sounds extremist to us, it is difficult to avoid the thought that some significant change will result from our now near-constant exposure to IT.

How long have you ben looking at a screen so far today ..... ?

Gibson's metaphysic, then, in All Tomorrow's Parties is Creative Evolution: an idea best associated with Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a philosopher who, in my view, lacks proper appreciation - whether or not one acccepts his thesis. Creative Evolution, generally speaking, is the assumption that evolution is always an advance: that hardships, although bad news for some or many individuals, creates in the long run improvement for the species - such as the human race. Bergson gave us the term elan vital -- or vital force -- to describe the existence of an immaterial life force that expresses itself in organic matter. This idea is, in my observation, the unconscious assumption behind most people's thoughts on evolution - of all levels of education. It's earlier term - Social Darwinism -- was nearly unchallenged. The interesting fact is that it is non-Darwinian! That is, Darwin's entire project was to try and establish that evolution is not a force for improvement, but one which can as easily eliminate as produce improvements. Peter J. Bowler is an indefatigable writer in in defense of Darwin against all type of creative evolutionism.

So, William Gibson has given fictional form to this intellectual field: using ideas from emerging technologies to suggest a eudystopic IT path that the elan vital might take. As your lecture notes will detail, Gibson also invokes the concept of emergent properties to create his virtual reality: i.e. his fiction. As the property of wetness emergences from the combination of two independent components neither of which themselves have the property wetness, so in All Tonorrow's Parties the property of existence arises from those components which comprise Rei Toei -- the idoru.

I love fiction, and I love it for many reasons. And one of these is its ability to bring the fantastic closer to the real by making it plausible. As I suggested in lecture, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a computer-generated celebrity, run by an algorithm of market-tested qualities, with a good singing voice, appealing appearance and virtual fashions, has al least no less reality (in a meaningful sense of "reality") than a person, experienced by mass public entirely through media, marketed as a performer, who can neither sing, play an instrument or dance.


Anonymous said...

It IS confusing alright! Very confusing indeed. When I read ch10, I would have to wait until ch14 when I can figure out what had happened back in ch10, same thing happened for ch25..30..65 (all of them actually.) All my knowledge of this book is based on partly what was being lectured in class. I don't understand how people can understand such a confusing novel! Even his chapters are fragmented, by that I mean 'all over the place' and 'disconnected'. No wonder people call Gibson a geek!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Ogden for the great semester! It has been a pleasure delving into fiction again and I wish you good fortune on your future endevors. (I figured I had better thank you before the exam, because by then I might have turned into some kind of demonic thing. =D)


xcentrik9 said...

Hey all:

OK, all we really did was discuss the themes out of the novels, how they can relate to one another.

We didn't find many other terms outside of the lecture notes.

So, if you're stressed out that you missed, don't worry. You didn't miss too much. It was essentially a discussion amongst 6 or 7 people about the books, nothing really new, just helping us reinforce the fact that we pretty much know all there is to know about these books.

Good luck tomorrow morning!

xcentrik9 said...


The mall opens at 9 tomorrow, will we all be able to get into the building for 8:30?

If so, through which entrance?

Anonymous said...

Ewww, that sucks. I park on the roof, I hope there's no problems. My Business teacher was telling our class that last semester there was that problem, some doors were locked, he just said to keep trying until you find one that's open!

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

I've contacted Mall Security & it looks like they'll let us in the roof entrance. If not, we can have the exam under the covered parkade.

Ha ha.