Johnny Mnemonic: The Day Cyberpunk Died
Arthur and Marilouise
Johnny Mnemonic, the movie, is the day when cyberpunk died.
Its failure is interesting less for aesthetic reasons - acting,
screenplay, cinematography, special effects - than for what it says about the
hyper-modern mind and its taste for shifting cultural signs. Killed by sheer
cultural acceleration, by the fact that 80s cyberpunk metaphors don't really
work anymore in the virtual 90s, the popular failure of Johnny Mnemonic
testifies to the end of the charismatic phase of digital reality, and the
beginning of the iron law of technological normalization. In the age of
Neuromancer we could still believe for one charismatic moment that
the body could deep-dish its way past screenal telemetry into galactic flows of
data, that Molly could vamp her way to mind fusion, that Case could jump out of
his flesh and byte-fry his way to Freeside, that somehow we could become data,
and it would be good.
Now Neuromancer hit just when hi-tech was in its
charismatic state of innocent grace, still a crazy fusion of computer
visionaries and outlaw businessmen and hacker writers coming in for a moment
from the back alleys of the digital frontier to check out the daytime scene with
all the T-shirts in the software labs. Like all cultural movements before it,
tech charisma lasts for only one brief, shining instant, and then it fades away
into the grim sociology of rationalized technology or, failing which, it quickly
disappears from life. The lessons of the 90s have been multiple and they've been
harsh: not the least of which is that data will find a way, and it's way is not
necessarily about becoming human. While the charisma of tech will never be
retrieved again, its memory lingers on the horizon like a beautiful beckoning
dream, all the more seductive for its absence.
And Johnny Mnemonic? The movie suffers the very worst fate of all:
it's been normalized, rationalized, chopped down to image-consumer size, drained
of its charisma and recuperated as a museum-piece of lost cybernetic
possibilities. Perhaps that's why the film provokes such intense resentment
among the cyber-crowd. Its presence is a bitter reminder of the decline of
cyberpunk into the present state of hyper-rational (hyper-marketplace)
technology. And cyberpunk? It will remain a permanent part of the American
literary landscape as a simulation of sci-fi transgression, but only in the
doubled form of the transgresion that confirms. That's Johnny Mnemonic: the
difference that recuperates: a cinematic tombstone for the cyberpunk that was
its own creation.
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are co-editors of CTHEORY.
"Johnny Mnemonic: The Day Cyberpunk Died" is from their forthcoming book titled,
Hacking the Future, New York: St. Martin's Press,1996.
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