A Post-Modern Ideology Delivery System
on Cyberpunk and the function of Genre
Cyberpunk is growing in popularity as an aesthetic. There’s a clear rise in the number of rain slicked streets and neon signs that populate the current pop culture landscape, whether that’s within movies, comics, or videogames. It helps that its key images play to the strengths of computer rendering: cyborg bodies aren’t subject to the same scrutiny regular human bodies are, and neon, rain and reflections play well with the ways we simulate light. But while the imagery of cyberpunk has grown, this hasn’t been reflected in the philosophies of the media that crib from it. Too often cyberpunk is taken only as an aesthetic, divorced from the context and anxieties that created it.
This is something that I’ve thought about as these conversations about what defines cyberpunk and if the latest round of games and media reflect these necessary elements. One particular argument surprised me, which was something along the lines of “I don’t believe that something has to be slavish to the politics of a 40 year old genre to have neon and cyborgs in it.” It was a sentiment I wanted to focus in on, because I felt it reflected a common attitude towards cyberpunk, one that not only ignored the history of that imagery, but the function of genre and iconography itself.
IMAGES ARE ICONS. ICONS ARE IDEOLOGY.
To understand cyberpunk we need to understand the function of images in our society. To put it simply: images are icons, and icons carry ideology. If any image is repeated enough it becomes an icon, and in turn those icons begin to become symbols for larger concepts. Take the American flag. A collection of stars and stripes that by themselves can be considered meaningless, but now hold so much meaning that people will pledge allegiance to it, have specific conditions on how it should be displayed, and will step in to protect it if it is threatened. They don’t do this because they have an irrational love for that particular formation of shapes and colors, but because they have been repeatedly told it stands for a greater idea that they feel some affinity towards.
Genre, and media as a whole, can likewise tells us what particular images stand for by offering them repeatedly as icons and motifs. Take something else that feels inextricably linked to America — the Western.
When you want to conjure up the image of something stereotypically American, the cowboy is your go to. The motifs of Westerns — chaotic towns, men who live on the edge of the law, conflicts with Native Americans, arguments settled at gunpoint — are so inextricably linked to the image of the United States you probably don’t need to go to far to see how it affects outsiders’ views of the US. Just take a look at former President George W. Bush, a Texas man whose administration was accused of practicing “cowboy diplomacy”.
This popular image of cowboys was popularized by Westerns and their depictions of the American West, and likewise its images and ideas are impossible to separate from the history and attitudes of the US. You can’t disconnect the genre’s depictions of Native Americans and the trope of the “noble savage” without seeing the ways that it reflects our history of violence against them, and the prejudices that helped enable their genocide. Even now these tropes continue to do harm to them — the genre’s depiction of Native Americans has become the predominant image of a diverse people, flattening several cultures into a stereotype that erases their history.
It’s also impossible to talk about the Western without talking about how the genre reflects American ideas of masculinity. How do the recurring characteristics of these lone gunmen reflect our ideas of independence and power through violence? What does comparing the cast of The Magnificent Seven and its remake say about our ideas of what masculinity looks like now? How does that relate to Seven Samurai, which The Magnificent Seven modeled itself after, and what does that say about our the approaches to masculinity modeled by generations of Japanese and American performances? These are ideologies that are core to the genre, and each carried through its iconography and evoked in their presence.
Cyperpunk carries no less meaning in its iconography. Westerns carry the violence of masculinity and imperialism, cyberpunk carries the anxiety of living in a globalized society where progress has outpaced humanity. Cyborgs reflected the anxieties of a world that was becoming increasingly mechanized and technology driven, where corporations were beginning to increase dramatically in control. It was an atmosphere where the importance of the individual disappeared, and questions of personal identity became muddled.
Likewise, during the creation of the movement countries like Japan entered a boom period, which saw a steady increase in imports of manufactured Japanese goods as the US’ own manufacturing efforts hit a decline. This led to a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, and these fears of encroaching Japanese technological power can be seen in the incorporation of Japanese language and imagery in cyberpunk cityscapes. These have been replaced in more recent years with Chinese elements as China’s economic power increases.
And while rain and neon are often associated with cyberpunk today, they have their own roots in the film noir movement. Film noir itself drew on the stylistic techniques of German expressionism, and the cynicism of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s that were brought upon by World War II, the rise of Nazism and a sense of moral depravity. The imagery from these films often included stark plays of shadow and light, and moody, melodramatic atmospheres covered in fog and rain. Neon’s high contrast lighting fit well into these scenes, and the relatively cheap cost of neon signs often made them good as images for advertisements in seedier parts of town.
The imagery of cyberpunk inherently invokes every one of these movements. The best examples of the genre understand this, and play with these aspects when building their worlds. In the best cases this lends a sense of history and context to the world, because we can see the roots of these ideas and how they connect with our personal understandings of the real world. At their worst they recycle tropes without knowing why they’re there, and muddle the story they’re trying to tell.
This understanding of the world is also important to being able to tell a successful modern cyberpunk story. Like a lot of science fiction, the world of cyberpunk has slowly become less fantastical since its inception. Neural networks, body implants, CRISPR, and even things like how we’ve integrated the internet into every day life, have created a world where the fantasy of cyberpunk seems almost mundane. Every day seems to present a new question of how we define ourselves and what we as a society are willing to tolerate.
That’s what separates stories that engage with cyberpunk from ones that simply crib its aesthetics. Games like 2064: Read Only Memories engage with these questions, integrating conversations around technology, genetics and gender into their world, and offering concrete possibilities for how they can shape us and our worldviews. Meanwhile, games like Dex nail the aesthetics and even the mechanical systems, but lack a concrete worldview and fail to engage the genre’s history. There are high rises next to slums, Chinese districts, and deep noir aesthetics, but they lack a clear worldview and play into genre tropes without purpose.
IDEALOGY AS CAPITAL
None of this is to say that every entry into a genre has to have a deep and labored understanding of a genre in order to play with its aesthetics. Rather, I want to reiterate that imagery carries ideology, and that this ideology matters. This is why arguments about definitions can be become so heated — it defines what we consider legitimate. It also defines what receives capital, both social and financial, how that reflects the greater conversation.
Let’s illustrate this with one more example: vaporwave.
As musician Christa Lee explains on an episode of Beyond the Filter, a podcast by artist Liz Ryerson, vaporwave began as a musical movement that co-opted the sounds of anime, muzak, old technology, and other highly commercial work, distorting it to create a new sound. This could be splicing, destroying bit rates, or just slowing down the sound file. There was a certain sense of irony to it, using the disposable nature of commercial art to intentionally create something more fractured. At the same time, there was also a sense of genuine appreciation, or even nostalgia, for those sounds.
This began to change as larger artists began to work in the medium, and the movement began to gain popularity for its subversive sound. Ironically, this led to it becoming commercialized and the anti-consumer and anti-capital elements sanded off or co-opted to create new capital. This pushed people away from the accessibility and anonymity of it, and began to erase the contributions of marginalized groups that contributed to it in favor of a more polished and mainstream sound.
A similar fear comes with seeing cyberpunk become reduced to an aesthetic. As with anything that’s felt subversive, it’s difficult to watch as it becomes commercialized and defanged for easy consumption. Art movements often come as reactions to each other, and the histories behind those reactions matter. Like vaporwave, cyberpunk is in danger of having that subversive history co-opted to build capital for commercial products. These products want to take the weight brought by the philosophical ideas of the genre and use them to lend a sense of legitimacy to their work, without engaging with any of the history or ideology behind it. And in the process the contributions of people who helped build become erased as the more commercialized idea of the aesthetic takes roots in the public consciousness.
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We only need to look towards genres like House Music, which is now often associated with white producers — despite being the product of gay Black and Latino communities — to see how the histories and ideas behind a movement can become erased. This is how iconography and aesthetics change their meaning, and in the process lose what made us fall in love with them in the first place.
These ideas, the history of them, and statements they make — those are what make these images and icons so compelling in the first place. To ignore that robs them of their humanity and complexity, and creates something that’s worse for it.
*Beyond the Filter Episode 10: On Vaporwave, Game Preservation, & Follies of Music Journalism — by Liz Ryerson w/Christa Lee
*‘Give it Up for DJ Blackface!’ by NPR Code Switch
*A Majula State of Mind: Dark Souls II and The Struggle
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Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of deorbital.media (@deorbital), and clickbliss.net (@clickbliss).