Advertising Degree Zero: William Gibson's "Zero History"
By Sherryl VintJune 3, 2011
Zero History by William Gibson
"THE FUTURE IS ALREADY HERE; it is just unevenly distributed," is one of William Gibson's most famous dictums. Zero History, his most recent novel, is perhaps best understood as science fiction of the present, a representation of this hyperreal moment in which we live surrounded by our technology, no longer — as Marxist critic Fredric Jameson laments — able to imagine a future. In Zero History Gibson, though, unlike Jameson, offers reasons for hope in this SF-saturated present, directing his penetrating powers of observation to capture the textures of this strangely familiar, uncannily alien world.
Gibson first gained fame as the father of cyberpunk fiction, coining the term "cyberspace" before it became what he called the "mass consensual hallucination" of the digital age. Neuromancer (1984), the poster-child of this cultural ethos, was famously written on a typewriter, despite the novel's setting in the heady, disembodied realm of the matrix. Gibson has most recently been praised for Pattern Recognition (2003), his first novel set in the present and the first in the Blue Ant trilogy which Zero History concludes. Reviews of Pattern Recognition celebrated Gibson's move from SF to mainstream fiction, an attribution that overlooks the axiom that SF is always-already about the moment of its production, not about the future. Thus, it's not really that Gibson has given up writing SF; rather, the world he has been describing throughout his career has manifested around us in the quotidian experience we take for granted. Although the technological milieu of Zero History is thus mundane, the interpenetration of human experience with technological media — perhaps the topic of Gibson's entire career — is catalogued and analyzed with the forensic exactness and poetic grace we have come to expect of the author. Indeed, while he deserves his status as chronicler of the information age, the sense of unease with the era embodied in the story of Neuromancer's typewriter remains: Gibson captures our era in sentences as carefully constructed as hand-made jewelry, yet he remains estranged from it, nostalgic for an earlier time and its illusion, at least, of simpler truths.
Zero History is fully a novel of the twenty-first century. Its technology is the network of GPS grids, iPhone apps, and ubiquitous surveillance we daily negotiate in the West. Its sites of anxiety are not artificial intelligences, mysterious Japanese corporations, or organ harvesters, but the impersonal forces of normalized security alerts, neoliberalism, and omnipresent advertising. One could call it a dystopia, and yet the necessary pivot point from which to turn and look through the fictional world and back upon our own is absent. Things are not differently dystopian in Zero History, but — in another telling Gibson phrase — "things are things." If the SPRAWL trilogy — Neuromancer, Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) — announced the arrival of a hip, youthful, disaffected, and at-least-posturingly radical outsider hero, the Blue Ant trilogy embraces instead the more staid perspective of the middle-aged: suspicious of trends, under no illusions that they will master systems rather than vice versa, and accommodated to a world designed neither for their needs nor their dreams. This shift is not merely reflective of Gibson's own aging demographic: it also captures a sense of weariness indicative of this new millennium of stolen elections, manufactured reasons for invasion, shrinking social programs, and bank bailouts. It is no longer necessary to imagine the dystopian future, for the world in which we live is far more perverse than any such fantasies.
Like most of Gibson's work, Zero History is a multi-stranded, well-choreographed thriller that keeps the reader turning the page. On this level, the book is a pleasure to read, but this is not really what it's about: the novel delivers its punch in contemplative moments, when we are encouraged to pause and wonder at the bizarre world of simulacra we have made. SF has been described, at times pejoratively, as a genre more interested in the worlds it builds than in the characters it provides to populate these worlds. Zero History thematizes this absence of plausible humanity in the genre; what is most compelling about the novel is the way it estranges us from the familiar world, a world in which our social lives have been replaced by social media, in which we take for granted universal surveillance via CCTV and software that mines cellular and online communication. Something is lost in a world in which lived reality and digitally augmented reality have blurred, a loss Gibson was already lamenting in Pattern Recognition, where Magda's work involved using casual social conversations to promote products, a practice that, she felt, was "devaluing something. In others. In myself."
The Blue Ant trilogy, named for the advertising agency featured in all three novels, concerns the relationship between advertising and art. The fear that art, as it becomes one commodity among others, would lose its ability to perform the necessary function of social critique was first raised by the theorists of the Frankfurt School (who get a shout out in Zero History), as they watched the rise of mass media culture in postwar America. Like Pattern Recognition's, Zero History's basic plot is about the search for the maker of a new product, although here there is no illusion that the product itself is what is desired: instead, it's the marketing methods used to build interest in the product that are innovative. Blue Ant insists that it is "more than just an advertising agency," and among the enhanced services it now offers is "brand vision transmission" — that is, "narrative. Consumers don't buy products, so much as narratives." The sought-after object is the clothing label "Gabriel Hounds," a company that has figured out how to compete in a market saturated with distinctive designer labels that convey cultural capital for the savvy consumer. Rather than striving to make their brand better known, Gabriel Hounds deals in the economics of scarcity, eschewing advertising as we know it. Whether and how they will be successful is central to the plot; they might simply be enacting a secret brand strategy hatched by Blue Ant's more-than-advertising-agency ethos, or they might successfully opt out of the cycle of manufactured need via fashion altogether.
The Blue Ant trilogy prefers the material world to the virtual one, just as Gibson's work has from the beginning. Although Neuromancer has often been celebrated as a novel that embraces what protagonist Case calls "the bodiless exultation of cyberspace," the book was largely about what it would cost someone to value the virtual world more. Similarly, in the Blue Ant trilogy, although all the energy circulates around and through agency founder Hubertus Bigend and his bid to "productize" any originality he can find, our sympathies are always directed toward those who drop out of Bigend's brave new world. In Spook Country (2007), the second entry in the trilogy, a character observes that the most interesting applications of new technologies tend to "turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery." This trilogy explores the convergence of art, militarization and advertising in the economics of the twenty-first century, when art, needing to find an audience and thus complicit with market economics, all too often finds itself conflated with advertising; when the military applications for tracking and surveillance are quickly marketed as consumer games and advertising platforms; and when the market itself, an entity treated as if it were a living thing, has become the all-too-material manifestation of the AI Other haunting Gibson's earlier fiction.
Zero History derives its title from the notion that there is no real history in the databases of the systems that monitor our every purchase, library book, Netflix movie, and the like. Yet it resonates in other ways as well, especially with Jameson's contention that postmodernism is characterized by a flattening of history into a series of styles that can be evoked and cannibalized at random, erasing any sense of underlying coherent narrative. Jameson was concerned that this loss of history, understood as a realm of collective human agency and action, would thereby deprive us of the possibility for a utopian future, a future understood as something actively made. Gibson comes at the same concerns from a slightly different angle. Gabriel Hounds returns to earlier modes of manufacture and strives to make "things that weren't tied to the present moment. Not to any moment, really, so not retro either" — as a way of moving beyond planned obsolescence and the relentless need to keep capital flowing through advertising and fashion seasons. Instead, these makers imagine a world of clothing that is comfortable, well-made (often by hand), and able to last for years: "when you imagine something like that, you imagine a world. You imagine the world those shoes come from, and you wonder if they could happen here, in this world, the one with all the bullshit."
In this way, Gibson wants to erase history, too, by making it a kind of style. Zero History is an attempt to step outside the history of postwar capitalism and the consequences of neoliberalism, to return to the values of an era in which things were manufactured because people needed them - for their use value rather than for their exchange value, to use the language of Marxist criticism. This fantasy of an economy that serves human needs rather than the flows of capital is the new future which Gibson suggests we might achieve.
In Neuromancer, human protagonists jacked into cyberspace, which as Gibson already knew, was the place where money lived; in Zero History, Gibson describes instead the world on "The Other Side" — the title of the book's final chapter - in which the forces that characterize cyberspace have instead manifested out, become part of augmented reality. In the twenty-first century, it seems, the most radical thing an outsider hero might do is go analog, make something by hand, give up the cosmopolitan world of interchangeable consumer culture for the embodied exultation of the local.
Whether the forces allied to resist the colonization of these remaining uncommodified spaces will triumph remains unclear, in our world as much as in this novel. Gibson is nothing if not a relentlessly neutral author, capturing with exquisite elegance and precision the geography of our current desires, and doing so without overtly endorsing or condemning them. With Neuromancer he captured the imaginary of a rising generation of (mostly) young men who went on to build the augmented reality in which we in the West live today; the Blue Ant trilogy envisions a future of (mostly) young men who join the army largely for its military fashions and who experience their work as a kind of cosplay. If Gibson remains the diagnostician he was once - and I believe that he does - this future is a scarier place, by far, than any that SF has yet imagined.
Sherryl Vint teaches at the University of California, Riverside. She co-edits the journals Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television and Humanimalia. She is the author of Bodies of Tomorrow and Animal Alterity, co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, and co-editor of the books The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Beyond Cyberpunk.
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