Liu, Alan. Excerpt from The Laws of Cool

Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 339-48. This excerpt follows a discussion of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and is part of a chapter entitled “Destructive Creativity: The Arts in the Information Age.”

Laws of Cool

Alan Liu is Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His first book Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford Univ. Press, 1989) explored the relation between the imaginative experiences of literature and history. In 1994, he started his Voice of the Shuttle Web site for humanities research. Liu is director of the Transcriptions Project, a project at UC Santa Barbara started with a NEH Teaching with Technology grant, and co-director of the English Department’s undergraduate specialization on Literature and the Culture of Information. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). Most recently, he has started the interdisciplinary University of California Multi-campus Research Group titled Transliteracies, which conducts research and development in the technological, social, and cultural practices of online reading. His forthcoming book is entitled Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database (forthcoming from Univ. of Chicago Press). He may be contacted at ayliu =at= english =dot= ucsb =dot= edu

Now we are ready for Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). Agrippa, to start with, is a book whose physically distressed form enacts Gibson’s distinctive patina of destructivity. As described by Peter Schwenger in a perceptive article, Agrippa is an artifact of catastrophe:

Black box recovered from some unspecified disaster, the massive case opens to reveal the textures of decay and age. Yellowed newspaper, rusty honeycombing, fog-colored cerement enveloping a pale book. . . . The pages are singed at their edges; more fragments of old newspapers are interspersed. And at intervals, engravings by New York artist Dennis Ashbaugh reproduce the commercial subjects of a previous generation, subjects that will later acquire a fuller meaning.{49}

We do not know what “unspecified disaster” left this work behind like the remnants of some half-demolished bomb shelter (though it is suggestive, as Schwenger notes, that Gibson’s father worked on the Manhattan Project). {50} But we do know that the work is indeed a testament, compendium, or edition of the generalized destructivity of the twentieth century—the first work, as it were, copy-edited by bomb. Nor is the catastrophe over and done with so that we can expect the trauma to be stabilized. A persistent radioactivity of destructivity continues. We first notice it when Ashbaugh’s images (at least as the book was originally conceived) alter in appearance like some picture of Dorian Gray updated to the processes of pixel-rot, gene-splicing, or molecule-creep that are the usual symptoms of cyberpunk’s fetishization of digital, biotech, and nanotech fungibility. As Schwenger describes, “Black patches like burns smudge [Ashbaugh’s] images. With exposure to light the images gradually fade; the black patches reveal themselves to be the rhythmic chains of the DNA molecule as captured in microphotography.” {51} What these auto-destructive yet revelatory images foreshadow is the great auto-da-fé of Agrippa, which, true to Gibson’s form, is in the end virtual. In a cavity within the last pages of Agrippa the book, we find a computer diskette containing the 305 lines of “Agrippa” the poem (the specific contribution of Gibson). The file on the diskette containing the poem can be read on the screen just once, after which a self-encrypting algorithm—the conceptual equivalent of a virus—makes it permanently disappear, leaving behind only the innumerable, hacked copies that now flourish like ghosts on the Internet. If Agrippa the book is edited by bomb, then “Agrippa” the poem is edited by a “logic bomb” (a program that, when triggered by a specific condition, runs a destructive routine). {52}

Thus, just as destructivity in [Joseph] Nechvatal’s art becomes creativity, so destructivity in Agrippa—epitomized in its self-canceling poem “Agrippa”—is the ground zero of an alternate creativity. Despite my comparison to the picture of Dorian Gray, however, that alternate creativity is ultimately less fin-de-siècle than Romantic, less focused on the creative expression of decay than on a recuperative or re-creative therapy for decay. Not Wilde, in other words, but Wordsworth (the predecessor to Poe in Gibson’s Romantic genealogy). Or, put another way, not The Picture of Dorian Gray but “Tintern Abbey” with its vision of another kind of picture able to take on a life of its own (“And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought, / With many recognitions dim and faint, . . . / The picture of the mind revives again”). Indeed, Gibson’s “Agrippa” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” pair up so exactly in their primary topic (the constitution of the self), primary psychological faculty (memory), tone (epiphany balanced against elegy), and genre (what M. H. Abrams calls the “greater Romantic lyric”) that it will repay us to review their similarities in some detail in order to gauge with matching precision what we will see to be the one essential difference of the Gibson poem. {53}

Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” conceived one way, asks two interlinked questions: “Who am I?” and “Who am I as a writer?” It is a testament of artistic identity, nested within a witnessing of personal identity. In “Tintern Abbey” (and elsewhere), Wordsworth had answered these tandem questions by equating artistic or “imaginative” sensibility with the foundation of Romantic personal identity: memory, the act of witnessing, conserving, and imaginatively recreating the original creativity of early life amid the destructivity that is the rite of passage into maturity. Destructivity, after all, is everywhere in Wordsworth. Destructivity is familial, as in the death of his father, which prompted the “blasted hawthorn” episode in The Prelude (1805; XI.344-88). And it is sociopolitical, as in the trauma of the French Revolution that subliminally haunts “Tintern Abbey” with its fixation on “five years” ago when the poet had just returned from France. {54} But in “Tintern Abbey” and other poems, Wordsworth counters destructivity with a faith in (re)creative memory so deep that it goes beyond the recall of personal origins to the recall of the primeval—of Nature itself as the fount of creation and re-creation. Nature may thus destroy (in the mode of the terroristic “sublime”) or make things decay (in the mode of the weathered, textured “picturesque”). But Nature also recreates so that the “picture of the mind revives again.” Nature is the spirit of reanimation within destruction. It is Nature’s regeneration, or perhaps simply gigantic prosthesis, that supplies all the amputations of existence—all the deaths, revolutions, and other apocalypses major and minor that dull the promise of life and make of it a broken thing called adulthood—with “abundant recompense” (l. 89). In short, Nature is the “organic” continuity that both Wordsworth and Coleridge in the period of “Tintern Abbey” called the One Life:

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. . . .
(“Tintern Abbey,” ll. 98-103) {55}

In one regard, Gibson’s “Agrippa” is fully Romantic because like “Tintern Abbey” it also answers the tandem questions “who am I?” and “who am I as a writer?” by equating artistic identity with a fundamentalism of personal memory. Indeed, Gibson’s poem is so much a work of memory that it might be called memory to the second power: it takes as its framing device an antecedent memory-book—a photo album—whose combined appearance of decay and clarity sets the scene for the poem’s meditation on destructivity and recuperation. As we learn in the first lines, “Agrippa” is actually the brand name of an old photo album that belonged to Gibson’s father:

A black book:

    Order Extra Leaves
        By Letter and Name
(ll. 4-8)

The photo album is a decayed artifact witnessing in its fabric the destructivity—entropic and otherwise—of the twentieth century:

A Kodak album of time-burned
black construction paper

The string he tied
Has been unravelled by years
and the dry weather of trunks
Like a lady’s shoestring from the First World War
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen
Until they resemble cigarette-ash
(ll. 9-16)

We recognize here the genealogical source of the blasted look and feel of Agrippa and perhaps also of the laminate tabletop at the Jarre or the code-eroded virtual beach in Neuromancer. In a sense, the patriarchal photo album is the old testament of loss behind Gibson’s poem as well as his cyberpunk fiction of the so-called “near future.” The genre of “near future” science fiction, in this regard, is not at all related to prophecy. It is instead a variant of elegy. The compulsion of the “near future” as a fictional genre is that “near” is closer, more intimate, and more deeply sunk into the bone of the “now” than any mere future that can be imagined. There is only one world that can haunt the present so nearly—the past.

Looking into the album, Gibson opens his poem in a kind of fugue memory so deep that it is really ancestral memory. He describes pictures of family history dating from before his own birth or personal memory. (Gibson’s father died when he was six, just as Wordsworth’s mother died when he was seven and his father when he was thirteen.) {56} Framed by the photo album and its aura of destructivity, what Gibson can see in the pictures is constantly shadowed by a penumbra of loss and erasure. The photo album is a palimpsest of amnesia, of the de-inscription of the past:

Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite
Now lost
Then his name
W. F. Gibson Jr.
and something, comma,
(ll. 17-22)

Yet for such loss, there follows abundant recompense. Gibson reconstructs from pictures of lost life such vivid memories that we would finally have to call them more “imaginative” than memorial. In the following description inspired by a picture from the album, for example, Gibson reanimates the scene in such a way that we can almost smell the bite of the saw:

A flat-roofed shack
Against a mountain ridge
In the foreground are tumbled boards and offcuts
He must have smelled the pitch, In August
The sweet hot reek
Of the electric saw
Biting into decades
(ll. 27-33)

It is as if for just a moment the time-arrow of the universe were equipollent in both directions, and entropic destruction (the sharp sawteeth biting, the sawdust flying) were balanced against creation. Destruction vs. creation: in the strange perception of memory there is barely a bit of difference (like 0 versus 1) between the two. What is memory, after all, but a rough-edged blade of mind sawing into decades to release a spray of images, sounds, and—most deeply, as in Proust’s madeleine—taste or fragrance of the intense past? Or to change metaphors: stars, astrophysicists tell us, end in certain cases in fiery explosions of destruction that release materials for the creation of new stars and new worlds. So, too, the “sweet hot reek” that forms in Gibson’s memory is a little supernova releasing the substance of the deep past as a sudden, sharp perfume of creation.

Once the process of re-creation starts, Gibson in the succeeding portions of his poem can dispense with the mediation of photography to recreate through imaginative memory what lies beyond the last page of his father’s album: his own early life. Just as “Tintern Abbey” superimposes two distinct periods of personal memory (separated by “five years,” 1793 and 1798) to create its complex diffraction patterns of identity, so “Agrippa” overlays memories of Gibson’s childhood with those of his exodus to Canada as a young man to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War (his generation’s version of Wordsworth’s French Revolution). This is the overall complex of memories that answers the question “who am I?” The more specific question “who am I as a writer?” is then answered by one cluster of memories in particular. These center on an all-night bus station in the southern town of Gibson’s youth where—in the heartland of subculture, in the “cool fluorescent cave of dreams” of a magazine rack where a “colored restroom” had once been—he first came under the spell of writing as a vocation:

There it was that I was marked out as a writer,
having discovered in that alcove
copies of certain magazines
esoteric and precious, and, yes,
I knew then, knew utterly,
the deal done in my heart forever,
though how I knew not,
nor ever have.
(ll. 247-54)

We might compare a similar moment of vocational dedication in Wordsworth’s Prelude:

                            I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me: bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be—else sinning greatly—
A dedicated spirit.
(1805; IV.341-44)

For both Wordsworth and Gibson, memory’s recall is prelude to the “calling” of a writer’s vocation.

Like Wordsworth’s poetry, then, “Agrippa” is a testament to loss that in the end becomes a new testament of recuperation. Gibson’s neuromanticism is indeed a disciple of Romanticism. {57} But the payoff for our comparison comes when we see how it sets off Gibson’s essential difference or heresy from Wordsworth. The One Life in “Tintern Abbey,” we remember, is a “motion” and “spirit” that “impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.” To glimpse Gibson’s difference, we need now only substitute the verb shoots for rolls. Where Wordsworth saw One Life, Gibson sees One Gun. After all, if Wordsworth’s most sublime poetry centers on “spots of time” such as the “blasted hawthorn” and “gibbet mast” episodes in The Prelude, clearly the equivalent sublime moments in Gibson’s “Agrippa” revolve around guns—in particular, one gun he fired accidentally as a child and another he fired more deliberately in later youth (but with equally unexpected results):

The gun lay on the dusty carpet.
Returning in utter awe I took it so carefully up
That the second shot, equally unintended,
    notched the hardwood bannister and brought
    a strange bright smell of ancient sap to life
    in a beam of dusty sunlight.
    Absolutely alone
    in awareness of the mechanism.
(ll. 135-42)

I was seventeen or so but basically I guess
you just had to be a white boy.
I’d hike out to a shale pit and run
ten dollars worth of 9mm
through it, so worn you hardly
had to pull the trigger.
Bored, tried shooting
down into a distant stream but
one of them came back at me
off a round of river rock
clipping walnut twigs from a branch
two feet above my head.
So that I remembered the mechanism.
(ll. 206-18)

We can make sense of the relation between the One Life and One Gun in this way. Both are at base imaginations of the powerful, compulsive agency that underlies authorial identity. What is authorial inspiration? Fundamentally, Wordsworth and Gibson answer, it is obeisance to a terrifying, autonomous agency without that is somehow also a poetic agency within. We might recall Blake declaring that he wrote his Milton “from immediate Dictation . . . without Premeditation & even against my Will.” {58} As theorized most strikingly in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, alien agency (equated by Bloom with patriarchal influence) is the signature of a strong writing that comes out of the self but is also not of the self or is unconscious to the self.

Gibson’s heresy is that he attributes such inspiration to automatic mechanism rather than natural organism. In the Enlightenment and early Industrial Revolution, mechanism was the “machine in the ghost” (to reverse the cliché) that had all along haunted Romantic “Nature.” We need only exert a slight mental pressure on “Tintern Abbey,” for example, to see that there is something uncannily mechanical about a One Life rolling resistlessly through all things like some totalitarian locomotive of the soul. But in “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth carefully keeps the golem tethered to Nature. Just so, in the “boat stealing” episode of The Prelude (1805; I.372-426) Wordsworth tethers the automaton-like “huge and mighty forms that do not live / Like living men” to the autochthonic “huge cliff” that rises overhead. The golems or robots are just metaphor; the natural cliff is reality. In another of his best known poems, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” Wordsworth tethers the automatic motion by which Lucy is “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees” to the natural rotation of the planet. As the poet’s late-life activism against the railroads in his native Lake District indicates, locomotive-like rollings were for him merely destructive; they became creative only when sanctified by the greater inhumanity he named Nature. {59}

Gibson cuts the tether to nature. Under the ghastly fluorescent lights, by the thrumming bus engines, near “where the long trucks groaned / on the highway” (ll. 261-62), and in hearing of the “timers of the traffic lights” on the streets of his quintessentially urban imagination (l. 257), the inhuman automatism that Wordsworth called Nature reveals itself to be what Gibson fetishistically calls “the mechanism” (where the ritualistic use of the definite article the reinforces the sense of alien objectness). The guns are “the mechanism.” And so, too, the camera responsible for the photos in his father’s album is “the mechanism”:

The mechanism: stamped black tin,
Leatherette over cardboard, bits of boxwood,
A lens
The shutter falls
Dividing that from this.
(ll. 98-103)

Even the photo album itself—the crossing point between the old, authoritative technology of the book and new, modern media—is “the mechanism.” “The mechanism closes,” Gibson says, shutting the album (l.178). Where Romantic Nature was the ghost in the machine that resisted iron mechanism even in the midst of the Enlightenment infatuation with “mechanistic” philosophy, for Gibson “the mechanism” exposes the ghostly gears (and circuits) undergirding contemporary life.

Metaphysics, in short, is for Gibson a matter of engineering. The only “spirit” rolling through the circuitry of all things is the dance of electrons that is the charm of contemporary technology. Out of this charm or romance—however destructive it may be to organic Nature—Gibson derives his faith in a new kind of recuperative creativity. How can this be? How can creativity come from mechanical destructivity? The answer inheres in what we understand mechanism to be. As imaged in his koan on the camera (quoted above), Gibson suggests that mechanism is at heart like the shutter “Forever / Dividing that from this.” It is a principle of existential discontinuity (of parts “needy for connection,” as Donna Haraway says, but barren of genetic or essential affiliation) that during modernity stamped its image on organic life through guns, shutters, and other devices engineered to create discontinuities so radical they cleaved apart limb from limb, and before and after, with a finality as absolute as death. {60} Yet for Gibson, such mechanistic discontinuity and destructivity is also the medium for an alternate mode of continuity and creativity. Like the discontinuous snapshots in his father’s album, like the fragmented memories of his own childhood and young manhood, and ultimately like the abruptly juxtaposed scenes of “the mechanism” itself in the poem (camera, album, trucks, traffic light timers, guns, and the final “red lanterns” in Chiyoda-ku “laughing / in the mechanism” [ll. 299-305]), discontinuity aligns in “Agrippa” into the montage effect or picture of discontinuity that is alone how our epoch knows continuity in the aftermath of the mass destructions of the twentieth century.

Destructivity may be a snip of the scissors that severs the picture of life, in other words, but disassembled vision itself acquires a kind of consistency and integrity. As it were: I cannot tell you great, heroic stories because too many of the heroes have been sent to the trenches, the beaches, the ovens, or the jungles, and their sagas have been blasted apart by a thousand howitzers and the equally terrifying thud of a million clerical stamps certifying on the passports, birth certificates, and immigration papers of refugees that modern life is fundamentally discontinuous, passing forever [like Gibson over the Canadian border] from that to this. But I still have my box of photos and clippings. The very brokenness of these things is the witness of my life. We are talking, in short, about collage, montage, cut-up, pastiche, assemblage, and so on. We are talking about the entire, spectacular heritage descended from the early twentieth century of auto-destructive works that cut, slice, and otherwise self-fracture themselves in quest of a larger picture of contemporary existence as the survivorship of destructive discontinuity. In Gibson’s work, destructivity and discontinuity are virally embedded within life as the possibility of creativity and continuity.


49. Schwenger, Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book,” pp. 617-18. [South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1994): 617-26] Schwenger’s excellent reading of Agrippa focuses on the poetics of “disappearance” and situates Gibson’s poem in the intellectual context of Mallarmé and Blanchot. My reading here, which focuses on “destructivity” and compares the poem to Romantic poetry, varies upon, but complements, Schwenger’s. For a photo of the mock-up of Agrippa described by Schwenger, see his article, p. 621.

50. Schwenger, “Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book,” p. 622.

51. Schwenger, “Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book,” p. 618. Kevin Begos indicated to me in a personal communication on 4 June 2003 that in the final publication Ashbaugh’s etchings did not in fact properly alter with exposure to light because the process could not be technically implemented.

52. In a personal communication with me on 4 June 2003, Kevin Begos remembered that the Mac diskette with Gibson’s poem was no longer playable within approximately six months because of technical obsolescence (due to rapidly evolving computer technology and software). We thus witness a kind of double disappearance of the work in time: Gibson’s text was designed to disappear at the end of reading, but in an unforeseen fashion it soon also disappeared before reading.

53. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric.” [in Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970)]

54. On the historical, political, and social background of “Tintern Abbey,” which has been controversial in Romanticism studies in recent years, see my discussion and citations of other critics (including Robert Brinkley, Kenneth Johnston, Marjorie Levinson, and Jerome McGann) in [my] Wordsworth: The Sense of History [(Stanford Univ. Press, 1989], pp. 215-17.

55. On the One Life, see Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), II.430; Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp,” l.26.

56. On Gibson’s father’s death, see Schwenger, “Agrippa, or, The Apocalyptic Book,” p. 623.

57. For an earlier comparison of “neuromanticism” to Romanticism, see my “Local Transcendence,” [“Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail,” [Representations 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113] pp. 75-77.

58. Blake, Letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803 (Complete Writings [ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966)], p. 823).

59. Wordsworth, “Kendal and Windermere Railway: Two Letters Re-Printed from the Morning Post,” in Prose Works, vol. 3. [The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: 1974)]

60. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, p. 151 [Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991)]. We might usefully invoke at this point Bob Perelman’s contemporary poem “China” (an instance of Language Poetry), which Fredric Jameson has canonized as one of the paradigms of postmodernism (Jameson, Postmodernism, pp. 28-30). [Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1991)] As in “Agrippa,” the framing device of Perelman’s poem is an old book of photos. After finding a picture book in Chinatown whose Chinese text he cannot read, Perelman writes a poem composed of radically discontinuous substitute captions—for example:

We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.
The people who taught us to count were being very kind.
It’s always time to leave.
If it rains, you either have your umbrella or you don’t.

Such is discontinuity so deep, Jameson suggests in his now classic analysis of postmodernism, that it is “schizophrenic.”

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