Filed under: Capitalism, cyberspace, Film, Imagination, Literature | Tags: Blade Runner, Colonialism, Colonization, Cyberpunk, cyberspace, Fredrick J. Turner, Frontier, Frontier Thesis, Locomotive, Neuromancer, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ridley Scott, Sergio Leone, Western, Wild West, William Gibson, Wired Magazine
In 1894, Fredrick J. Turner articulated his famous American frontier thesis:
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.
The ‘Great West’ in the American consciousness is not a geographical location, but a manufactured horizon perpetually out of reach. After all, the ‘Great West’ never needed to be ‘discovered’; it was already there and hundreds of indigenous societies called it home. Its construction as an uncivilized frontier remains an essential ingredient of economic expansion and legitimized the eradication of Native American cultures across the continent and the subsequent accumulation of wealth, natural resources and property. Unfortunately, arrival at its opposite coast and pan-national colonization did nothing to quench America’s desire for expansion and settlement. In fact, once America was confronted with physical evidence that the frontier that had motivated their historical narrative had disappeared, Western culture developed a cultural anxiety, almost an identity complex: once the end has been reached, once the West is no longer wild, how do we proceed?
The answer? Invent a substitute. Hollywood created a new, imaginary frontier in film, television and pulp fiction to retame and to recolonize. The trajectory of the cinematic Western follows the incessant progression of the locomotive, a potent symbol of modernization. From John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the locomotive lumbers on in an increasingly modern landscape; its arrival at the coast in Leone’s epic coincides with the death of Cheyenne, the classic (and nostalgic) frontiersman archetype, who succumbs to a wound inflicted by Morton, the railroad tycoon. Filmgoers witnessed their filmic West become civilized, settled and modernized, gradually weaned of its coarse and savage past. Seven months after the release of Leone’s final Western, Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch (1969), a film set decidedly in the modern era, in 1913, complete with machine guns and automobiles. Colonization of the American Western was now complete.
This tactic of imaginary colonization was repeated with the emergence of cyberpunk. It was as if by the end of the 1970s, Western art had run out of revised histories to colonize, so it turned to the future. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) remain seminal texts for the new genre. Cyberpunk remains a curious cultural phenomenon. By 1993, only nine years after the publication of Neuromancer, Wired Magazine had already declared cyberpunk dead. Even contemporary films with clear allegiance to cyberpunk’s legacy, like the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) remain dissociated from the earlier cyberpunk canon.
The blinding speed with which cyberpunk completed its colonialist project is telling. What is notable about cyberpunk fantasies is their uncanny resemblance to contemporary global capitalism. They are like the present, only more so. Cyberpunk artists tend to tease out the latent material of our consumerist, fragmented society in a frenzied, amplified paean to postmodern life. The dystopic cityscapes of Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, saturated with corporate advertisements and giant digital screens might not concern a viewer who has visited New York’s Times Square in this century. Gibson is also credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’—the ‘consensual hallucination’ of transglobal corporate commerce. The only difference between Gibson’s cyberspace and ours is that his vision of the corporate potential for profit were far too conservative.
Capitalism, having not yet realized its fullest desires in its own time, tips its hand with cyberpunk and colonizes the hereafter—or, in the parlance of Max Headroom, ‘20 minutes into the future’. The cyberpunk future collapses in on the present, which now seems a cruder, less civilized version of itself. The West has turned its settlers into natives; modernity needs to catch up and there’s no time like the present. ‘The wilderness masters the colonist,’ Turner wrote more than a century ago. ‘It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe’.
What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the space being colonized is not imaginary, but an actual, physical space in society. Just as colonizing the imaginary, filmic Wild West in fact colonized twentieth-century America with the expansion of the film and pulp literature industries to help establish a commodity culture, the preparation and subsequent colonizing of cyberspace facilitates the proliferation of offshore outsourcing, limitless free trade and the establishment of a post-industrial economy. Telecommunication companies colonize the real West with broadband cables and fibre optics, broadcast towers and satellite dishes. The fantasy, articulated by cyberpunk, of a decentralized, boundless, radically free market is purchased by a concentration of infrastructure and a focalized, urban population eager to make use of it.
So, finally, we are left with a new manifestation of Turner’s frontier: a vast, unnavigable space promising opportunity and expansion on one side; and a centralized, civilized posse of venture capitalists with an eye for profit. Only now, we don’t have to worry about that pesky Pacific ocean…