In a more recent interview, Scott Bukatman admits that cyberculture has changed so much since the publication of his book that terminal identity may well have become an obsolete term. ‘It seems that people have gotten more comfortable with a sense of overlap: that there’s a physical culture and an electronic culture, and that’s not exactly the same thing’, he says. ‘We don’t think it’s confusing to go from one to the other any more… It’s like virtual reality was never all it was cracked to be.’
Perhaps it’s true that social media and virtual reality hasn’t changed us in the way science fiction has incessantly prophesied. We understand that there are things in the material world that cyberspace can never offer, and some semblance of the virtual/real binary remains intact. However, therein lies a danger of complacency. ‘If we’re so comfortable that we no longer reflect on it, except when somebody commits suicide because they were harassed on Facebook or something like that, then there’s trouble,’ Bukatman warns.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to remain master of the machine. Layer 02 opens at a night club, where a young man takes a cyber drug called Accela. His eyes widen and his body spasms; everything around him appears to slow down. Later on, he pulls out a gun and shoots two people. This is reminiscent of mass shootings in the US, and the disastrous Aum Shinrikyo incident in 1995, when university graduates released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and severely injuring 50 (their social alienation was said to be related to anime and otaku culture).
Serial Experiments Lain captures the misfits who try to relinquish their bodies to the machine to no avail – that the man pays an exorbitant price to keep up (literally) with technology is indicative of both his lack of connections and desperation, but he is ultimately rejected. As a result, he turns to destruction, convinced that the machine can’t be good for anybody. When Lain of the Wired tells him that the cybernetic state is omnipresent, he realises that the only way he can be free is to point his gun to his mouth.
Then there’s Mika, Lain’s sister, who paints an even more terrifying vision of the fates of those who slip between the cracks. In Layer 05, Eiri explains that mankind is a neoteny: situated at the peak of its physical evolution, held back from perfection by the primitive desires of the flesh. The next step is for us to give up our bodies and allow our souls to ascend to the Wired. Eiri’s dual metaphor, invoking both religion and science, highlights the inescapable conclusion that not everyone will have the opportunity to migrate to cyberspace; inequality has been a constant throughout the history of human thought. Dying to natural selection or being condemned to hell – they both achieve the same end of cleansing the weak for the greater good of humanity. These people are destined to be the objects, not subjects; bodies, not souls.
We jump to a close-up of Mika, buttoning her shirt after making out with a man: she is a body. The rest of the episode has noirish overtones as she tries to stake her position as a cyber citizen and subject. When a runaway car kills another misfit she walks away in nonchalance, and she stiffly rejects Taro’s sexualisation. However, she soon discovers a piece of tissue with the words, ‘The other side is overcrowded. The dead will have nowhere to go.’ As if God himself were punishing the contagious prolificacy of mankind by restricting access to the afterlife – the lives of the unworthy would be denied all meaning, unhonoured even in death.
Mika presents her last line of defence at dinner, when she inquires about Lain’s well-being – we are reminded that she too is a human being, with the capacity to care for others. But it’s no use. In a haunting sequence, the Knights hijack Mika’s mind, repeatedly telling her to ‘fulfil the prophecy’; to make way for the evolution and transcendence of humanity by submitting to her status as an object. Mika returns to a doppelgänger of herself – her body has been appropriated by the Knights, to be used however they want – and what’s left of her mind dissolves into nothingness. The psychological rape is complete.
One of the biggest failings of cyberpunk is perhaps that it continues to take for granted the privileged status of the subject. ‘Faced with the possibility of its own extinction, or at least its new irrelevance, the human subject has produced a range of representations of itself as melded with the matrices of terminal existence. The human proudly takes up a position within the machine, but almost always from a position of mastery, so that by entering the machine, the machine becomes part of the human’, Bukatman writes in Terminal Identity; subject power continues to be treated as an ‘untested, unchanging, and eternal phenomenon’.
In a throwback to patriarchal gender archetypes, the worthy are given the means to defend themselves against the dehumanising effects of postmodern technologies in the form of a mechanically-augmented ‘hypermasculine’ armour – to protect their subject statuses as these technologies, associated with the deadly female siren, liquefy all boundaries, reality, and meaning. Bukatman sees an exemplification of this in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where Arnold’s ‘old-fashioned’, armoured T-800 cyborg model protects John and Sarah against the ‘androgynous’, shape-shifting liquid metal T-1000 (made even more overtly female in the T-X of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines); just as postmodern technologies resist our penetration and remain incomprehensible to us, ‘phallic’ weapons like guns and spears are ineffectual against its ‘fluid interiority’. Arnold finally defeats the T-1000 in a steel foundry, recalling the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, when men were firmly in control of the machine.
There are many other instances of hypermasculine cyborgs battling the monstrous feminine in cyberpunk fiction. In The Matrix trilogy, Neo turns the fluidity of the Matrix against the machines, eventually co-opting them entirely as he protects the machine king from the true enemy, the virus-like Smith. In Xenoblade Chronicles, Shulk invokes the precognitive powers of the Monado to lend the insect-like Mechon far more predictability. In Steins;Gate, Okabe perfects the time machine to wrestle control of fate from the bleakly-deterministic figuration of time herself.
In Serial Experiments Lain, Lain of the Wired is Lain’s hypermasculine armour, protecting her against the manipulative, irrational, and vengeful Dark Lain. Lain of the Wired guides Lain in the abyss of cyberspace, and surfaces in the material world whenever Lain is threatened. She is assertive and resolute, unfazed by larger men and pointed guns.
Encased in our hypermasculine armours, our credit cards and GPS devices and iPhones – all of which exist to make virtual reality seem intuitive and seamless – we may assume a position of mastery once more. Indeed, Eiri’s technocratic vision of society mirrors the workings of the late capitalist cybernetic state. Certainly it is egalitarian within itself – more and more we strive, as cyborgs, to downplay the importance of the body and bodily differences – but for those who are unworthy, the organic body that once signified the individual is liquidated by postmodern technologies, and relentlessly appropriated to fuel the resource-hungry machine.
Even with an unprecedented access to global information and the experiences of others, we are more segregated from those without a voice in cyberspace than ever before. Once upon a time, the village farmer lived just across the road. Now, those implicated in the production of our goods seem so far away – the factory workers, the child labourers, the animals – separated by layers of literal and figurative, corporate doors, existing solely to provide for the consumer. They are economic units, accountable to questions of cost-effectiveness, not morality.
It’s not that we’ve become less caring as individuals. However, we’re encouraged to think of our goods as virtual entities, coming into existence only at the moment of consumption and disappearing immediately after. The mall is a closed environment, with it’s artificial lighting, lack of windows, and high ceilings (which, unlike that of the Church, exist to be conquered). It advocates a worship of the self as the privileged subject. The only questions that should be relevant to us when deciding to consume a good is if we desire it, and if we can afford it.
It is incredibly surreal to watch undercover footage of factory farms, to get occasional glimpses into the horrific workings of the machine. We are voyeurs, always observing the immense cruelty from the safety and comfort of our homes. How could we ever know what that means? Stop the video, and the blood-curdling screams disappear. The room is quiet once more. The next time we’re in a supermarket and we glance at a slab of cleanly packaged meat, we wonder how we could’ve possibly been looking at the same thing. It’s as though we were merely watching a piece of fiction. Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the economic food chain are subsumed into the language of inevitability. Their subjugation is prophesied, natural, ordained by God.
Surely this can’t be what we want. So why it is so difficult to do anything about it? In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Mark Fischer worries that we may have arrived at the ‘end of history’, an age where capitalist ideology has successfully incorporated postmodern resistance and fused with reality itself. Unlike traditional ideologies, the capitalist cybernetic state does not require propaganda to function; it’s so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it’s simply impossible to think of a world without it.
In fact, capitalism thrives on protest. The ‘role of capitalist ideology’, Fischer writes, is ‘to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief’. We are encouraged to be cynical and angry, to rebel against the abuse of power by apathetic governments and greedy corporations, all while overlooking our complicity in the capital exchanges that make these possible.
Witness as Bono’s Live 8 “protest” demanded that ‘politicians legislate away poverty’. Protest, Fischer argues, requires the figuration of an all-powerful Father figure who ‘has unlimited access to resources’, but who ‘selfishly – and senselessly – hoards them’. The genius of capitalism is in its ability to convince us that such a figure still exists, and that protest still works. The result is a disavowal of responsibility, especially from the hypermasculine middle class, onto ‘fantasmatic Others’. We believe that we can solve inequality while enjoying the benefits of our current consumerist lifestyles, so long as we put the right people in charge.
In Serial Experiments Lain, we are invited to typecast Dark Lain as the fantasmatic Other, the monstrous feminine, the heartless antagonist upon whom we can offload our hatred. To do so, however, would be to fall right into her trap. Dark Lain’s strength lies not in her ability to overpower Lain – Lain’s hypermasculine armour almost certainly makes her the stronger of the two – but to act as a scapegoat and blind Lain to her own complicity in all the suffering.
We turn to our last but perhaps most significant victim of Eiri’s cybernetic oppression, Alice. When Dark Lain exposes Alice’s infatuation with a male teacher (and what she does at night thinking about him) and frames Lain for it, Lain responds by using Lain of the Wired’s powers to erase everyone’s memories of the incident. In donning her hypermasculine armour and insisting on her status as privileged subject, however, Lain becomes so segregated from the non-cyberspacial world that she is momentarily cut off from it, and Dark Lain is able to usurp her place as Alice’s friend.
To counter this, Lain restores Alice’s memory of the incident, demanding that Alice be grateful to her for their friendship, and thus act as an anchor for her fragile physicality. Unbeknownst to Lain, the burden of holding on to such a memory causes Alice a lot of grief. In treating Alice as an object, a pawn, Dark Lain succeeds in getting Lain to do the same. Silenced, trivialised, and appropriated, Alice asks if Lain really hates her that much.
Lain of the Wired is at best an antihero. She certainly protects Lain, but as her list of victims grow, we come to fear her rationalistic detachment. Her outrage at the abuse of children in Layer 06 demonstrates her need deflect responsibility onto a fastasmatic Other, while the endemic flaws of the system that guarantees her power remain untouched. In fact, Lain of the Wired strongly resembles Eiri – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Eiri aspires to be like her. This is why he desires so badly to replace her as alpha male.
Serial Experiments Lain does not suggest that we resort to self-loathing and misanthropy. Far from it. Lain didn’t choose to be put in such a bind, and her actions evoke condolence more than anything else. However, it forces us to grapple with the uncomfortable notion that there are no malevolent father figures for us to blame – apathetic governments and greedy corporations are the symptoms, not causes, of systemic injustice. ‘What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation’, Fischer notes. ‘To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital.’
Our hypermasculine armours are double-edged swords. We want to be empowered as subjects to make moral decisions that benefit the less fortunate, but this is undermined by the very act of subject empowerment. As Susan J. Napier notes in When the Machines Stop, Serial Experiments Lain ‘contains an almost obsessive number of still shots of telephone power lines, conveying not only the omnipresence of technology but of the communications media in particular, and implicitly hinting at our inability to communicate in any satisfactory way’. This is particularly true of Lain’s relationship with Alice, and our relationship with the economic victims of the cybernetic state. We are presented with a simulacrum of connection through protests and charity, but like the opening animation for Duvet, we remain stuck behind the television screen.
This is part 2 in a 3-part series on Serial Experiments Lain and technology. The 1st part is Serial Experiments Lain and the Upper Layer of Reality.