Down to Navigation Controls

Cyberpunk, Rock and Roll, and Radical Cultural Politics

by Bruce Kotz

I met Bruce Kotz one night in a rundown nightclub in the heart of Washington, DC. The club was putting on a "Cyberpunk Night" and they had invited Bruce and me to give talks. Most of the evening was a series of failed "performances" (a mousy little Rocky Rococo guy in a white suit, seated on a stool, stumbles through passages of "Disappearing Through The Skylight" while a tall women dressed in some kind of retro-deco space garb holds a flashlight over his head). Bruce Kotz took the stage at about 11:30 after most everyone had gotten bored and left and those that remained had gotten very drunk. Without notes and without fanfare, Bruce launched into an unbelievable rant on cyberpunk and its relationship to post-modernism, pop culture, radical politics, the history of the avant garde, and the kitchen sink. It was a beautiful, dizzying, non-stop performance of "mind jazz," ridiculously laden with every conceivable pomo phrase and buzzword. Ideas and images just spewed out of him like so much fractal vomit. Overall his rant was brilliant, delivered without pause, to a gaggle of drunks in a stale smelling bar, late one night in our nation's murder capital.

I didn't get a chance to talk with him much that night, but I got his phone number, and since then we have become fast friends. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation at American University on the theme of cyberpunk and radical cultural politics.

[Note: I asked Bruce to write about a 14-page essay. He showed up several weeks later with about 114 pages of computer print outs. This is the tip of that iceberg. If you like this and you want to see more, drop me a line and we can work something out.]

- Gareth Branwyn

While rock n' roll provides cyberpunk with its necessary condition and ethics, the question remains: what does cyberpunk offer rock n' roll? It is within the context of cyberpunk that we turn to the most essential problem facing rock n' roll as we move towards the year 2000. While the thermal/chaotic loop between DJ and Band, technologies of amplification/(re)production, and the dancing body politic is alive and well (regardless of the MTV couch potatoization of robo-pop and the retro-cultural void of classic rock), the feedback loop between the rock n' roll body politic and the techno-logics of power itself has been effectively short circuited.

In the eighties, the forces of radical cultural politics were alive and well - from ACT UP to hard core rap, pro-choice demonstrations to speed metal and the "battle of the books" (in the university) to industrial noise. But, regardless of how hard we fight and dance, how loud we scream and sing, the hangover of history (its morning after) welcomes us daily to a techno-ecology become terrordome. Regardless of how precious the sublime intensities of Saturday night fever are, the Monday morning blues return eternally. Regardless of how sophisticated and effective we have become at making trouble with the resources at hand, we are still forced to watch George Bush on television (whether one throws away their television or not), calling the shots of war from the eighteenth hole. Regardless of whether a nation of millions march and scream for the rights of the disenfranchised, our political system continues to sleep through our nightmares. Regardless of the chaos-formations and noise cultures catalyzed and amplified by the difference and repetition, the polyrhythms and fractal interstices of rock n' roll semiosis, the thermal (molecular) turbulence of the rock n' roll libidinal economy provides the entrepreneurial ethos with its innovative destruction and capital with its vectors of deterritorialization: revolution provides NIKE with its promo-jingles and green politics provides new age politics with its grand recycling project and promotional culture with its "green market" eco-chic.

While rock n' roll reminds cyberpunk of the libidinal economy extinguished by new age cosmonauts, techno-hippie flashbacks and cyberliberal futurists, cyberpunk reminds rock n' roll of a postmodern articulation of power which has simply ceased to have anything to do with humanity, the grain it its voice and the ritual fortress of its dancing body politic. While rock n' roll reminds cyberpunk of its ribofunk, cyberpunk reminds rock n' roll of the necessity of breaking on through to the other side of the television/computer screen and fighting the powers that be on their own electronic turf. It is with the help of cyberpunk that the feedback loops of rock n' roll turbulence/noise culture can be extended into the strange (aperiodic) attractors of a butterfly loop which feeds the noise back into the system and pumps up the volume.

Before we turn to cyberpunk, it is essential to recognize the reasons we are interested in cultural politics rather than more traditional forms of political opposition. First and foremost, we are interested in those radical edges where pleasure and subversion meet head on. Shifting our focus from political to libidinal economies, ethical (transcendent) and economic (instrumental) rationality to (anti)aesthetic (ir)rationalities, we conceive of pop culture as a means of reading between the lines of enlightened historic master-narratives. As with the relation between Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, the relation between aesthetic and ethical rationality has always been precarious at best. As with the relation between the schizo-logics (self referential 24-hour advertising intertext) of MTV and the "Body McCarthyism" of the neo-conservative 80's, the relation between aesthetic and economic rationalities is fraught with tensions and open ended "lines of flight." While the origins and development of rock n' roll attitude are eternally reterritorialized by the hedonist/narcissist ethic and the spirit of consumerism, it is with the conjunction between Nietzche's geneaology of soul (and the Afro-American origins of rock n' roll) and the becomings/ metamorphoses of the dancing body politic, the polyrhythmic trajectories, minor tonalities (histories/languages) and grain in the voice of rock n' roll attitude (its active nihilism) reminds the eternal return of new world orders of its difference and repetition, the kitsch/pastiche of yellow-ribbon patriotism of its catastrophic archaeology and eschatologic ruptures, the thousand points of (en)light(enment) of its dark shadows and our "kinder and gentler nation" of its seismic tensions. It is from the vantage point of pop culture and its rock n' roll dancing body politic that we re- read/write the strange attractors between the history of our present and future from the vantage point of the polyrhythmic interzone between chaos and order.

In contrast to the dialectic negation of political opposition, we believe that within our present historic (postmodern) conjunction, it is with the conjunctive synthesis between chaotic polyrhythms (the irreconcilable tensions/ contradiction immanent to the tragic interstices of enlightened master-narrative, the complexity and self-organization immanent to control and communication, and the difference/repetition immanent to the eternal return of sit-com seriality) and the catastrophic bifurcations of the schizo-logics of pop semiosis (and its "postmodern buzzword"), that the lines of flight and vectors of deterritorialization immanent to the history of our present and the strange/chaotic attractors immanent to the history of our future are articulated. From the vantage point of a homeopathic cultural politics, the task of radical cultural politics is not one of political opposition, but of Baudrillard's "fatal (catastrophic) strategies" and Deleuze and Guattari's "vectors of deterritorialization." Our attraction to pop culture has nothing to do with its supposed populism or humanism, but instead with its viral semiosis and catastrophic bifurcation.

While the self-referential 24-hour advertising intertext of MTV would feed directly into the promotional culture of late capitalism, the conjunction between MTV capitalism and its promotional culture would simultaneously deconstruct the Protestant ethic, ideologic state apparatus and oedipal (transcendent/hierarchic) value structure of modern political economy (the state control of organized capitalism). It is within this context that we need to remember that neo-conservatives are as offended by the conjunction between postmodernism and pop culture as are the neo-Marxists. But regardless of the political transgressions of the postmodern/pop culture couplet (the disjunction between aesthetic/ethical rationalities), the profits of capitalism remain tightly bound to the libidinal economy/semiosis of the rock n' roll body politic (the conjunction between aesthetic and economic rationalities). It is within the Gordian knot which ties together the surplus cultural capital of MTV capitalism, the culture industry and its televisual apparatus, its promotional culture and consumption society, that we seek the micro-fibral threads of libidinal excess and sublime transgressions of the thermal turbulence immanent to melting pot heat, the non- equilibrial/linear thermodynamics and Brownian motions immanent to the statistical mechanics of mass culture, the event horizons and naked singularities immanent to the black hole of retro-cultural referentiality.


Graphic: Neuromancer Comic, adapted for Cyberpunk Documentary

Navigation Controls

© 1998 The Computer Lab
Gareth Branwyn -

Go to Street Tech, Gar & Pete's Tech Review Site.