Friday, February 29, 2008

Cybergrunge Revisited

I had to miss class Thursday--my older daughter had a stomachache (or so she's been complaining for the past week) and with my wife in Buffalo for work/school, the only doctor's appointment I could get was right in the middle of it (doc couldn't find anything physically wrong with her--yay! boo for how easily manipulated I am by a 4-year-old). So I gave out a silly little handout based on my Cybergrunge post here and and failed to explain it well on our course ANGEL space, and most people mostly didn't know quite what to do with it. What I was hoping would happen was that people would analyze the setting, characters, plot, and style of China Mountain Zhang and Neuromancer, not just describe them. What I was hoping would come out of that analysis is the recognition of features of the novels that could be related to the musical movements of punk and grunge. But a 8 1" x 1" boxes on an 8" x 11" piece of paper don't really lend themselves to that, even if I had explained the task well in handwriting that was halfway legible. (My apologies, but my daughter got bored while I was making it and wandered out of the office to the downstairs front entrance of the building before I noticed she was gone. Yup, another father of the year moment. So in my defense I was a bit freaked out and rushed while finishing it up. And, yes, I did find her, ok?)

Still, those who could read my handwriting and took the time to comment on my proposed distinction between cyberpunk and cybergrunge had some neat ideas. Here's the neatest one so far (people are still dropping them off in my mailbox):

Gibson and McHugh took their basic settings and ideas based on popular culture of their decade. The '80s is about punk and going against the man which Gibson shows in Neuromancer. The '90s were a bit more depressed and introverted; it was the decade of grunge and Kurt Cobain. I expect China Mountain Zhang to be about that.

Yeah, this is my basic idea, too. Think Johnny Rotten vs. Kurt Cobain and you get something of the contrast between Case and Zhang. Think the loud and fast DIY aesthetic of punk of the Ramones and the Clash vs. the slow and sad/loud and angry dialectics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and, for that matter, early Radiohead) and you have something of the contrast between the plotting and pacing of Gibson's and McHugh's writing.

You can do more with this--like point out that the '80s were also the era of elite as well as "underclass" drug use (think cocaine and crack epidemics), urban crime and government corruption (even by supposed anti-big government "revolutionaries"--anyone remember Iran/Contra?), the heightening and then end of the Cold War (although the line from "evil empire" to the fall of the Berlin Wall is less direct than many today would want to convince you), and the culture wars--in order to complicate the contrasts between the decades and the movements. (Yes, kids, the '80s weren't just about "going against the man" and punk was one of many musical/political responses to the events and tensions of the decade. I can tell you because I was there! Now I feel like Ish. And not in a good way.) And if you go far enough you might also find interesting similarities between the decades, musics, writers, and subgenres I wanted to get you thinking about. Feel free to do that on your own!

As for my analogy proposed in my update, Beeblebrox is right to suggest it stinks, but mostly, I think now, because I got it backwards. It's not:




. (Made you nostalgic for the SAT, didn't I? Or did you not take them before they got rid of analogies?)

Wait, maybe it's both. I'll just lay out both ways of thinking through these analogies and let you decide if they help at all!

For the first, I was thinking of how dramatic and exciting Gibson makes Neuromancer and linking it to the excitement that early existentialist writings sparked among mid-20th C intellectuals. A kind of despairing, desperate excitement, but one that was self-consciously challenging the big ideas of the West (God, rationality, metaphysics, ontology, yadda yadda yadda) and writing in the heroic mode about becoming over being and making meaning over finding it and challenging dogma and authority and yadda yadda yadda. Whereas their successors, the postmodernists, took that kind of yadda yadda yadda/"been there done that" blase attitude to all that, taking a kind of cool, ironic pleasure in demonstrating that we live in a world characterized by various instabilities (of language, meaning, identity). Which to me captures something of the difference in the tone and atmosphere of McHugh's writing when compared stylistically to Gibson's.

For the second, though, I started thinking about characterization and quickly realized that Zhang is going through a fairly fundamental existentialist crisis, as the "Baffin Island" section dramatizes and thematizes quite well (just think of his response to the Arctic landscape as akin to the existentialists' crises of meaning and metaphysics). China Mountain Zhang really is a classic bildungsroman--it really does tell the story of Zhang's becoming, even as it interweaves it with other characters' lives and developments. On the level of characterization, Gibson is much more postmodernist--it's hard to tell what, if anything, Case and Molly have learned about themselves at the end of Neuromancer; the biggest character development is the merging of Wintermute and Neuromancer, and Gibson leaves for the rest of the Sprawl trilogy an exploration of what they become.

So it's no wonder why the analogy isn't clarifying, although I wouldn't go so far as to say it's complete b.s. (A little joke there for those who know my initials.) Would you?

1 comment:

Beeblebrox said...

Geez, I thought you might have had tham backward, but far be it from me to "question authority"... Anyway, I was thinking along the same line as you when it came to not just the philosophical implications of exsitentialism and post-modernism, but the cultural/ musical aspect as well. BTW, I never did take those damned SATs Thanks to Home Schooling and Community College I never had to. I was lucky enough however to be able to remember when the Berlin Wall fell, and how it felt like we didn't have to worry about being instantly vaporized by communist nuclear bombs. I have to admit though, that I never eally gave into Grunge much, I was still holding white knuckle firm to my punk roots and wearing a purple mohawk praying for a punk-rock revival and only getting a watered down Lollapalooza version of a resurrection instead, so of course I had to ignore the flannel wearing "grungies" lest I not be taken seriously by my own crew.(ha ha) But, this is just further confusing me as to why I SO detested the "cyberpunk" novel we read and actually enjoy the "cybergrunge?" Maybe it's a self fufilling prophecy. (imploding again). Old Punk-Rockers turned houisewives-non traditional college student, I guess I'm almost as bad as my "socialist-hippie" upper middle class parents trying to make up for being lame to their inter-racial grandchildren by voting for Obama.