Self Atomising Machines: Hypnagogic Cyberpunk, Reality and Utopia


Welcome to Cyberia

If hauntological music is rekindling (or hankering after) a utopian vision drawn from certain facets of English culture c.1950-1980, then what’s the utopian vision of its brash US cousin, hypnagogic pop?

David Keenan (who coined the term) and Simon Reynolds both argue that hypnagogic pop takes its aesthetic cues from 80s pop and soft-rock (Don Henley, Fleetwood Mac- even Chris de Burgh) and New Age spirituality (Wyndham Hill Records, tie dye tshirts- even Enya), and they’re clearly onto something. But I reckon there’s another utopia/dystopia buried in the liminal zones of hypnagogia: cyberpunk. This is a hypnagogic vision a lot darker than that of Dolphins Into the Future, but perhaps also a whole lot more political…

There’s reasonable hypothetical grounds to assume a link between cyberpunk and hypnagogic pop. If those making this music are- as Keenan claims- half-remembering the New Ageisms of their childhood, perhaps they’re also half-remembering cyberpunk from the same time. And perhaps they’re subconsciously aware of the links between New Agey ambience and cyberpunk futurism. Vangelis’  Blade Runner soundtrack, or this Steve Roach video (which actually predates cyberpunk by a couple of years), for example…


This link between cyberpunk and hypnagogic pop has been hovering in the liminal spaces of my own brain recently but it made itself explicit when I recently watched the 1990 documentary film Cyberpunk (which you can watch too!). Its once cutting edge CGI immediately reminded me of Daniel Lopatin’s reappropriation of 80s computer imagery as sunsetcorp (Lopatin is better known as chief hypnagogue Oneohtrix Point Never).

Many William Gibsons: a still from 'Cyberpunk'.

Many Timothy Learys

The resonances are more than aesthetic, though. Both cyberpunk and the kind of hypnagogic pop I’m interested in here deal with a dissolution of the self into the networked collective (un)conscious, operating in that much spoken about ‘liminal zone’ where dreams and reality merge. Speaking to David Keenan, James Ferraro- one of hypnagogic pop’s key figures- says ‘I’ve always viewed my music as just sort of plugging into a matrix of human-alien culture…plugging into a world broadcast of media entities that jump out of the screen and merge with life via people internalising them as soundtracks for life temples’.

Life Temples? A Still from 'Cyberpunk'

It’s this dissolution of the self into the network that’s central to cyberpunk. In Neuromancer, cyberspace is described as ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system’. As we plug into this, our sense of self is lost, and all kinds of wondrous new horizons open up. ‘The internet is a self-atomising machine’, as Oneohtrix Point Never’s digitised voice tells us on Returnal‘s title track (the picture accompanying this video was chosen by the YouTube uploader, I should note).

So what’s the utopianism in all this? Where’s the politics? At The Guardian’s music blog Ben Beaumont-Thomas expressed dismay at the lack of political content in hypnagogic pop (which he problematically abstracts into a larger category of ‘blog rock’), suggesting that- at best- ‘with Ferraro’s nostalgia comes an implicit, bitter rejection of the now’. But like hauntology, there’s something more than nostalgia going on here (though as I’ve argued elsewhere, this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily superior to nostalgia). It’s possible to see Ferraro and his likeminded travellers not as people who bitterly reject the present, but who chastise it for failing to deliver the utopia cyberpunk seemed to promise. They want to realise the radical potential offered by the hackers interviewed in Cyberpunk (one of whom- Michael Synergy- claims he’ll be more powerful than a government agency within a few years), by Case in Neuromancer and by those on the titular enclaves in Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net.

Michael Synergy in 'Cyberpunk'

This is the utopia of the cyborg- a union of man and machine, of self and network. Here, it is suggested, we can imagine a radical politics which is not constructed on an essential view of the human. It’s information, not the human, that wants to be free.

It’s this that’s been celebrated in cyberpunk by a couple of interesting thinkers hovering at the ‘postmodern’ end of anarchism: Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson and Lewis Call. Bey (who edited a 1989 Semiotext(e) anthology of cyberpunk) speaks of his enthusiasm for cyberpunk’s view of ‘the web’ in his essay ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’. ‘Like Gibson and Sterling’, he writes ‘I am assuming that the official Net will never succeed in shutting down the Web or the counter-Net; that data-piracy, unauthorized transmissions and the free flow of information can never be frozen‘. (Interestingly, there’s a musical version of this essay- made with Bill Laswell- which isn’t a million miles away from James Ferraro’s Monopoly Child Star Searchers’ album Bamboo for Two.)

The Semiotext(e) SF anthology edited by Peter Lamborn Wilson (AKA Hakim Bey)

Lewis Call, meanwhile, uses cyberpunk to help the reader visualise his postmodern anarchism: the highly praised final chapter of his book Postmodern Anarchism is dedicated to the form. For him:

[Postmodern anarchism’s] deconstruction of Enlightenment subjectivity is no mere theory in the pages of cyberpunk science fiction; it is an established epistemological condition. Characters in these books routinely experience sensory perceptions which “belong” to someone else. Cases of postmodern schizophrenia and multiple electronic identity are common. A character might upload a simulation model of her mind to the net; it is not unheard of for the network itself to attain consciousness.’

This might be terrifying to some, but it aint an easy ride being a Nietzschean revolutionary, and cyberpunk:

‘tell[s] us what it is like to live in a universe where the comfortable certainties of the modern world have vanished…[and] what it means to be revolutionary in such a universe…They describe an anarchist politics for our time…The barricades of the next revolution will be raised on post-Cartesian virtual space, and this revolution will be carried out by the cyborgs who reject an outmoded bourgeois subjectivity’

This is the world of Baudrillard’s simulacra which, on Call’s reading, presents us with radical possibilities to change the way things are. We should not seek a return to the ‘real’ world and a truth which will set us free. Rather we must embrace the logic of simulation- use the power of The Matrix to construct new ways of living, new forms of consciousness.

A hacker's disguised identity in 'Cyberpunk'.

An example of hyperreal consciousness is seen in Donna Haraway’s 1991 essay ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’. Haraway sees the cyborg not as the vision of man’s technological triumph over nature, but the end of such binary divisions. It is a utopian becoming one of (wo)man, nature and technology:

Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling. I like to imagine LAG, the Livermore Action Group, as a kind of cyborg society, dedicated to realistically converting the laboratories that most fiercely embody and spew out the tools of technological apocalypse, and committed to building a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, perverts, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state. Fission Impossible is the name of the affinity group in my town.

Fission Impossible would be a pretty good name for a band of cyberpunk hypnagogues, don’t you think? Perhaps they’d sound like Stellar OM Source, who’s inspired by a Harawyian melding of (wo)man, machine and nature, stating that her art and music ‘draws references to cybernetics/computers and spirituality. This is the visual translation of my own life…technologies, computers as part of my being. I also feel and want to express the connections with higher realms and I’m fascinated by the power of our minds. I try to express what attracts me, be it alien intelligence, emotional computers, glamour’.

Two Plus Two Does Not Equal Five


But perhaps the cyberpunk hypnagogues aren’t all trying to rekindle an 80s promise of utopia. Perhaps cyberpunk wasn’t a promise of utopia at all, but a dystopia: cyberspace as a postmodern Garden of Eden (the original ‘soft’ dystopia: all happiness, no freedom). The argument here is that we do not live in a world of ‘simulacra’ (which is ‘never that which conceals the truth- it is the truth which conceals that there is none’) but a world of simluation, designed to hide the real from us. On this reading the liminal zone is a collective nightmare blinding us to exploitative reality. Shouldn’t we be disturbed that our hypnagogic poppers are enthralled to Don Henley, 80s Fleetwood Mac, Chris de fucking Burgh? These people are the soundtrack to the end of history. Where’s the rainbow road headed in that sunsetcorp video? It’s stuck in an endless, pathetic loop. Repetition without difference. It’s a road to nowhere.

The Matrix (the film, that is) doesn’t see cyberspace as utopian. It might think it’s a Baudrillardian film but it’s nothing of the kind (as Baudrillard himself grumpily pointed out). In its world, the virtual hides the real: it is not one with the real. The Matrix is Plato’s cave, its inhabitants chained up and unaware that what they see is not real.

This is the warning Mark Fisher makes. Cyberspace can be counterproductive for politicization and radical politics; it leads to individualisation not networkisation and can help prop up the system it was supposed to herald the end of. Or we may become one with our computers, but only because they come to completely dominate us. Here, Cronenberg’s Videodrome and ExistenZ become touchpoints. How about this for some proto-hypnagogia?

The Sleeper Wakes

If hypnagogic cyberpunk is the dystopian sound of our collective nightmare then the 7″ reimagining of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal (with vocals by Antony Hegarty) can be seen as a glimpse of light in the darkness. Shorn of the original’s digital bliss, it can be heard as a defiant statement of fragile (but beautiful) humanity struggling against the machinic atomisation of the self: a trend which might continue. And Lopatin (a man who’s used YouTube- the internet addict’s heaven- as an instrument) suggests his new work will move away from the simulacra of digital synthesis towards organic instruments. The hypnagogue awakes from his slumbers! The real returns as the realisation dawns that somewhere, behind/beyond/before the simulation it’s been lurking….it’s never left, it’s been here the whole time…

Although I quoted him above as a celebrant of cyberpunk utopianism, Hakim Bey’s always been wary of the tension between the inherently mediating nature of cyberspace and the immediatist culture he’s celebrating. And in the Preface to the Second Edition of T.A.Z. (a collection of his writings which includes the essay ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’) he radically revises the position quoted above, writing the following:

I think perhaps the least useful part of the book is its section on the Internet. I envisioned the NEt as an adjunct to the T.A.Z., a technology in service to the T.A.Z., a means of potentiating its emergence…Time magazine identified me as a cyber-guru and “explained” that the TAZ exists in cyberspace….by 1995 [the commercial/surveillance function of the Net] had succeeded in burying the anarchical potential of the Net (if it ever really existed) under a mass of advertizing and dot-com scams. What’s left of the Left now seems to inhabit a ghostworld where a few thousand “hits” pass for political action and the “virtual community” takes the place of human presence. The Web has become a perfect mirror of Global Capital: borderless, triumphalist, evanescent, aesthetically bankrupt, monocultural, violent- a force for atomization and isolation, for the disappearance of knowledge, of sexuality, and of all the senses.

(Let’s not forget that the cyberspatial megacorp in Islands in the Net is called RIZOME).

To realise its utopian potential, the TAZ must shun cyberspace for ‘geographical odorous tactile tasty physical space’. A hypnagogic pop gig, perhaps, with the bass pulsing through our inners; a shared community high on ecstasy or company or dancing; a space in which utopian social relations can be prefigured.

This spatial utopia might, perhaps, be found on the islands of Islands in the Net (which are, after all, physical space- even if they have a cyberspatial function too). Or maybe it’d be on Zion, the Rastafarian space station in Neuromancer. Maybe up there, orbitting the dystopian world of the Sprawl and the matrix and the simstims…maybe up there they’re listening to the hypnagogic dub of Sun Araw or Pocahaunted.

Make it real, people. Make it real.


Afterthoughts, get out clauses and P.S.’s…

1. The spectre of Ballard is hovering around many of these themes. Ballardian traces the links between Ballard and cyberpunk (with Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson thrown in too: it’s where I got the Semiotext(e) SF anthology picture from), and Keenan’s original article on hypnagogic pop mentions Ballard as an influence on various hypnagogues.

2. I run an record label which is a cyberspatial experiment in utopian forms of exchange– and I didn’t even manage to plug it in this piece. Lewis Call upholds file sharing as a utopian social arrangement. And Baudrillard’s written about the utopian potential of gift economies. Maybe if I understood what it was all about I could have worked it in.

2. Drugs. Drugs drugs drugs. You’ll notice Timothy Leary (of LSD fame) in a picture towards the top of the post. He’s a pretty big fan of Gibson, and drugs play a pretty important part in Neuromancer– at the same time crippling Case and allowing him to go beyond the present, to transcend his own being. Their role in utopian/dystopian fiction isn’t minimal, either- they’re used both to control (Soma in Brave New World) and expand the mind (mescaline in Island). And I’d take a reasoned guess that some of our beloved hypnagogues have had the odd flirtation along the way, too (is it me, or is talking about drugs now completely passé in music criticism?).

3. Gibson and Sterling are both regulars in Wired Magazine: the ultimate celebrant of neoliberal cyberspace. The former puts his name to $340 laptop bags and $550 coats.

4. The singularity. I guess that’s the ultimate utopia for the synthesis of mind and machine, and it seems to me to signal the end of becoming: a permanent state of blissful liminality… the hypnagogia of the entire universe. And hey, it has some synth music of its own!

5. Yeahyeahyeah. I’m reading too much into the music. “Dave, c’mon man- these dudes just wanna get stoned, jam with their friends and make some cool tunes, yeah? First of all Keenan comes along and calls their music ‘hypnagogic pop’. They’d just about stopped pissing themselves at that and you come along with this mental narrative about reality and truth and radical politics and….just listen to the tunes!” I KNOW I KNOW. But let me have my fun, eh? Let me bugger these songs; let me force a meaning out somehow…

6. Stellar Om Source isn’t from the US.

7. Wikileaks might be interesting to consider in all of this.

8. As might the identity politics. Cyberpunk is often criticised for being the product of privileged young white men, and, well – hai Julian Assange.

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15 thoughts on “Self Atomising Machines: Hypnagogic Cyberpunk, Reality and Utopia

  1. (My hunch is that the games mentioned in Reality is Broken will probably serve to prop up our dystopia rather than help us transgress it. Anything that talks about improving ‘happiness’ sets off alarm bells in any radical utopian theorist’s head…).

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  3. Pretty sure that Semiotext SF anthology was edited by friend-of-Leary and drugnet early adopter Robert Anton Wilson, not Peter Lamborn? I think Lamborn-as-Bey has a piece in there though, possibly an extract from TAZ…

  4. Interesting that RAW was a co-editor: another link between cyberpunk/scifi and the New Age. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven’s an interesting piece to this jigsaw too: a Taoist warning against traditional utopianism. Lewis Call’s also written on that (along with The Dispossessed), arguing that you can extract a postmodern anarchism from it.

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  7. Thanks for the very thoughtful and critical post. I have to respond to be bit you interpreted of Haraway because it reflects a much broader reading out there that comes up a lot. Sorry it is so long, but I think you unlocked something. 🙂

    Haraway never argued for the end of binary divisions and the oneness of man/woman/technology/animal. Haraway’s cyborg was an analytical metaphor, not a utopian goal. She was intervening in Marxist feminism’s reliance on Woman as an analytical category for looking at oppression because the category often erased the experiences of non-white women and also made some pretty essentialist claims that excluded trans people, disabled people, women who don’t reproduce for one reason or another, etc. It was also an argument against the ecofeminists who sometimes claimed that women were purer, less violent, closer to nature and farther from the evils of masculine technoscience. That’s why it was originally published in Socialist Review (15:2, 1985) as “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Feminism is right there in the title but so many just pay no attention to this. (This is not fully your fault, but this is something I see a lot.)

    By contrast, Haraway says that we are all already polluted, produced by military technologies, medicine, and science — even “wild nature” looks as it does because of its relationships with technoscience. The idea that we can think have others’ experiences through technology might seem new to a cyberutopian with no theory of knowledge as an effect of power, but many including Foucault have long argued that our thoughts and experiences are not fully our own. Nor are we only our thoughts, uploadable to the net.

    So the cyborg isn’t a goal. It is what we already are in all its corruption, beauty, violence, and possibility. So she takes the cyborg as a starting point for a new metaphor for political subjects; in contrast to the subject who is a member of a class (e.g. worker, woman, egyptian), the cyborg points us to how we are made up of lots of different experiences, materials, and identities and finding a post-identity politics that doesn’t require us to describe ourselves as a unified class, e.g. worker, woman, but instead looks for points of alliance among all of us who are irreducibly different from each other.

    In this way, it is actually antithetical to her argument to talk about the unity of man/woman/technology. The passage you quote above isn’t describing a utopian unity. It is a tactical alliance to make the world less wicked than it is right now. And it is a tactic that is intended to make sure that you don’t have to pretend “we are all members of this utopia now and we have to march or look the same way.”

    Fantasies of utopian oneness, by contrast, are often the opposite. They focus on the melding of consciousnesses, the exchangability of people’s experiences through communication, and the possibility of empathy and mutual understanding. Such utopian fantasies of oneness are generally devoid of any analysis of how power dynamics can make a consensus just as manufactured and oppressive as an authoritarian system because they assume that individual wills are coming from an authentic, willful self who is untouched by power. When everyone can just upload their consciousness into “the net,” those nimble fingers of Asian women doing low labor cost high toxicity technology manufacturing are required so everyone can get their hundred dollar laptop. The workings of power, the sacrificing of some is required for the technological fulfillment of others. Net fantasies are all about forgetting the infrastructures and human labor sitting underneath the “disembodied” zone of exchange.

    Haraway does not any innocent zone of technological melding of exchange. Haraway would, rather, say that our already cyborg selves are inauthentic, our wills are not fully our own and free, our technologies are produced by wicked labor conditions, and yet we must go on and resist injustice anyways. But rather than throwing away everything that seems wicked, or demanding that you have to fully get with the program of being vegan or woman or whatever to be part of the small and big revolutions, we ought to recognize that everything already complicated and more or less wicked and go from there. (Her latest book “When Species Meet” clarifies these positive politics quite a bit.

    (Her latest book “When Species Meet” specifically takes on how to be responsive, responsible (“response-able” in her terms) given the impossibility of melding consciousnesses with others. )

    • To TLDR myself, Haraway doesn’t believe in utopian one consciousness across all different kinds of beings. She, to my reading, believes in the impossibility of such unities (such as those depended on by Socialist Feminist identity politics and theories) and proposes the cyborg to point out how we are all already unpure combinations technologies, identities, class positions, etc. Rather than a politics of achieving unity, she proposes a politics of cyborgs tactically held together in temporary, purposeful alliances finding ways to live on together despite irreducible difference.

    • Wow!

      Thanks so much for your comment; and apologies it’s taken me so long to reply.

      I’ll take on board what you’ve said about Haraway, and learn my lesson to, y’know, do a bit more reading before posting! Not least because from what you’ve said it seems that Haraway is quite close to my own understanding of utopianism/utopia. Briefly, the ‘nomadic utopianism’ I’m trying to develop is one marked by difference, nonhierarchy and becoming which creates ‘nomadic utopias’ (thus reversing the normal relationship between utopia and utopianism). These are nonhierarchically structured and open to difference. They remain utopian spaces only to the extent that they remain open to the future and that that future remains open to the future: they are spaces-in-process. Lewis Call’s reading of cyberpunk makes it (largely) compatible with nomadic utopianism, although I think he was more than a little optimistic about it. The gender politics of Gibson, certainly, are pretty dodgy.

    • This is baller. I’ve encountered a bit of Haraway, but now am infinitely more intrigued. To simply make the connection, another awesome woman all should read: Joanna Russ. ‘The Female Man.’

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