Annotation: David Porush’s “Hacking the Brainstem” (1994)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash.” Configurations 2.3 (1994): 537-71. Print.

In this article Porush discusses how cyberspace is often presented in literature as offering the possibility for transcendence of the physical body. Users traverse and operate in this new cyberspatial terrain through a “‘meta’ body in the brain” (538). Porush essentially asserts that postmodern cyberpunk novels deal explicitly with meta-physics and meta-physical modes of existence. He emphasizes that this link has been often overlooked by critics because postmodernists are uncomfortable with the spiritual connotations of metaphysics. Yet, Porush argues that postmodern fiction’s “critique of rationalism, and of the scientific/technological project of our culture in particular,” suggests an embracement of irrationality that is very much a part of metaphysical thought and even more importantly, the experience of cyberspace itself (539). Porush emphasizes that users have to delude themselves into believing that they can temporarily dissociate from their material bodies and exist in a meta-physical form of disembodied consciousness in order to fully inhabit cyberspace. In the latter part of his essay Porush examines how Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash presents transcendent views of cyberspace, which is interestingly called the “Metaverse” in the novel, but ultimately rejects those meta-physical visions because of an enduring attachment to rationalism. Porush discusses how the Snow Crash virus destabilizes the distinction between the real world and virtual reality by affecting both digitized avatars and the material human brain, suggesting a transcendence of space and human-machine dichotomies. He emphasizes the that virus also reveals a universal tongue embedded deeply within the internal structures of the human brain, which suggests another form linguistic transcendence. Porush notes, however, that by the end of the novel this universalism is denounced by rationalistic deductions that this transcendent commonality between humans can be dangerously exploited.

Porush’s analysis of the metaphysics of cyberspace will be helpful in formulating my own thesis as I extend his argument to consider how this meta-physicality affects race, which is often associated with phenotypical characteristics of the physical human body. As he asserts that cyberspace requires a delusion of sorts, I will interrogate what kinds of delusions users have about race. Particularly important to my own paper is Porush’s own “delusion” of Hiro’s racial, national identity as he asserts “Hiro is a Japanese American hacker living in L.A” (561). This statement suggests an egregious erasure of both his Korean and African American heritage, which can be a telling slippage of how cyberspace is racialized and those identities that are excluded.

Annotation: Anne Dalke’s “Original Vice” (1988)

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This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Dalke, Anne. “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel.” Early American Literature 23.2 (1988): 188-202. Print.

In this article Dalke argues that the prevalence of themes of incest in early American novels reflect public anxieties about the “absence of a well defined social system” (188). Rather than an actual fear of “widespread incest,” she claims that authors were concerned with what the potential for incest signifies, namely, the inherent dangers posed by increased socio-economic mobility (188). Dissolving class boundaries and the fluid structure of society in the young nation fueled people’s desires for a return to organized, hierarchal arrangements, symbolized in these tales through the characters’ search for their “fathers,” or more broadly, for the protection of a charitable “upper class” (189). While Dalke examines numerous incest narratives, her discussion of Read’s Margaretta is especially relevant to my research. She exposes the conservative strains within the novel, claiming that, “opportunity is open… only to those already well-to-do. No man rises here by his own efforts” (199). The specter of incest that appears in the story therefore serves only to emphasize the importance of parentage and inheritance. Margaretta remains at the whims of her father, relying on his political and material currency to improve her socio-economic status and ultimately marry outside of her class. But while Dalke’s argument enables us to understand how the novel copes with anxieties about the “ease of social movement” and re-imagines an ordered community where distinctions in rank remain clear, I contest her representation of Margaretta, which divests the heroine entirely of agency and ignores the critical role she plays in re-constructing a coherent American national identity (188). Dalke also disregards the complexity of Read’s text when she discusses the characters’ inability to acquire material wealth outside of inheritance. Although this may be true, Read intentionally presents a reversal at the end of her novel that contrasts Margaretta’s newfound riches with De Burling’s impoverished state. The fact that she empowers her heroine with the ability to restore William’s fortune and, essentially, his violated manhood, has greater political and economic implications that I want to explore in my paper.