Space and Power: 19th-Century Urban Practice and Gibson's Cyberworld

By Fabijancic, Tony | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1999 | Go to article overview

Space and Power: 19th-Century Urban Practice and Gibson's Cyberworld


Fabijancic, Tony, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Modernity may be broadly defined as a mindset which privileges the new and fashionable over the old and traditional, and in this sense it becomes one of the central ideologies according to which life is understood in multinational capitalist society and culture. Insofar as an investigation of the dynamics of capitalism requires attention to the "material" base of this ideology, a problem with many depictions of modernity therefore lies in the overemphasis on "time" and too little attention to "space." This emphasis on the temporal can be seen, for example, in those accounts which view modernity as beginning with the Renaissance's revolutionary "conviction that history had a specific direction," continuing with the Enlightenment's project of change, and culminating perhaps most forcefully in the 19th century when modernity as an ethos appeared to be generated from the linear (developmental) progression of history (Calinescu 22). Such accounts, however, fail to address the "structure" of modernity, just as they tend to overlook the way that capitalism registers its exploitation in physical forms. Capitalism channels the "movements" of its subjects as much as their ways of seeing and thinking, and it is in this interaction between capitalist spaces and the subjects who occupy them that modernity is most clearly comprehensible and its continuance today can best be seen.

An important capitalist process which pervades the spatial organisation of cities in modernity is reification - an umbrella term that Georg Lukacs introduced in his History and Class Consciousness to describe the kind of problematic experience, at all social levels, which results from conditions generated by commodity production. On the objective side, reification has to do with capitalism's "second nature" of appearances in the form of a system founded largely on commodity production, one that seems inescapable and permanent; on the subjective side, reification involves the fragmentation or abstraction of individuals - the limited development or maturation resulting from specialized labor under capitalism, the mechanization of workers in order to motor the capitalist machine, the separation of individuals from each other, and a failed sense of vision, an inability to see this state of affairs for what it is. Another characteristic of reification, and a contributor to subjects' experience of modern urban space, especially through vision, is the subject/object opposition in which a gap forms between subject and objective world (as well as between subject and the products of subjective labor), increasingly bridged only through vision, as in the consumption activity of the promenade or in television and film viewing or the playing of video games. Reification thus also "invades" the spatial structures of aesthetics, both in terms of content and form. The concrete transformations of space and vision begun particularly in the 19th century (the arcade; Baron Haussmann's reconstructions of Paris) are homologous with the stylistic abstractions (in the Marxist sense of "fragmentation" and "atomization") of modernist and postmodernist literature and visual arts. This restructuring is equivalent to the conditions of reified fictional subjects whose lived space and sense of vision is bound up with or reflective of the processes of modernization, and also approximated for readers or viewers of the works themselves through various experimentations with form.

Among contemporary literary experimenters, few are more concerned with issues of reification and capitalism and its future directions than William Gibson, whose cyberpunk trilogy - Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) - literally enacts the shift from temporally-oriented depth modes to spatial, surface ones that Fredric Jameson associates with third-stage or multinational capitalism. In each of these works, Gibson presents us with a hyper-urban, technology-ridden, and utterly simulational world.

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