Computer Fictions: Narratives of the Machinic Phylum

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Johnston, John. "Computer Fictions: Narratives of the Machinic Phylum." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 8.4 (1997): pp. 443-63. Special Issue: Papers from the Eighteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Rob Latham, editor.

This is not the script for Johnston's presentation but a full scholarly essay of some 20 printed pages (see above), starting with an opening section on the cyborg and Net (or web) of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk as "tributary to a new extension of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari designate in A Thousand Plateus [1980/trans. 1987] as the 'machinic phylum,' a concept taken up and elaborated by Manuel De Landa in his [1991] book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and his essay 'Nonorganic Life,'" published in the scholarly anthology Incorporations (1996). Johnston uses

the term "mechanic phylum" to designate a realm of forces and material flows that cuts across the strongly coded oppositions between the organic and the inorganic, the human and the inhuman, order and chaos. This realm has been rendered visible by the computer, which through its powers of calculation and simulation opens a window onto the mechanic phylum. Indeed, it is no accident that the computer gives rise to a whole range of boundary-disturbing phenomena — Artificial Intelligence [AI], Artificial Life, chaos and nonlinear systems or complexity theory, the cyborg and new transformations of the human body, virtual reality [VR,] and a new global communications assemblage. Like the clock in the 18th century, another "autonomous machine," the computer restructures the human world and literally creates a new reality. 

Johnston discusses these themes in the cyberpunk novels Neuromancer and Synners, by William Gibson and Pat Cadigan, respectively, and Eric Harry's "cyberthriller" Society of the Mind (Johnston p. 443).

For Neuromancer, note Johnston's discussion of data, flesh, and capital.

Thematically, Neuromancer presents the mechanic phylum as a continuum defined by the double transformation or two-way traffic between data and flesh. This continuum is first suggested in Case's vision of the streets of Ninsei as a field of data: "all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market" (16). Later Case experiences a more complex vision of flesh and data as convertible forms of information, but in a more ambiguous setting, when he makes love to his now dead lover Linda Lee in a virtual reality scene in cyberspace [...] (239). (Johnston pp. 449-50)
In Gibson's fiction, beginning with his story "Johnny Mnemonic," information or data and capital are interchangeable, just as science and technology are simply the means by which nature is converted into the machine phylum. (p. 450)

With Synners, note Johnston's discussion of Cadigan's phrase "change for the machines," the most important of which, in Johnston's words, "is brought about through the developments of 'brain sockets' that allow human subjects to plug-in directly to either virtual reality scenarios or the global communications network called the System" — and Johnston on the main concern of Synners as "how the various characters react to the effects of this new technology" of brain sockets and their causing "neurological damage, resulting in a cerebral stroke or 'intercranial meltdown'" (p. 453). As with Neuromancer, Synners is concerned with the relationship between the cyberspace presence and the "meat," with one of the characters becoming "a form of disembodied electronic intelligence in the System" (Johnston 455).

Johnston concludes his discussion of Neuromancer, Synners, and Society of the Mind,

Unlike the cyberpunk novels before it, which focus on possible consequences of mechanic interactions — that is, interactions based on various and multiple connections between humans and machines — the narrative in Society of [the] Mind envisions a point at which the extension of the mechanic phylum will no longer require any human interactions whatsoever, and the human world will be completely eclipsed by a world of machines. In such a world it will no longer be information that wants to be free [in the hackers' slogan], but the machines that process that information. However, in 'their' discovery of difference, conflict and the 'meaning' of reproduction [...] something echoing the human will be perpetuated.

RDE, Initial Compiler, 13Mar19