Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

April 29, 2020

YANG | The Fuzzy Relationship Between Cyberpunk and American Exceptionalism

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While by no means is a catastrophic event a necessary condition to learn a valuable lesson, but if there’s one thing we can learn from the sudden, pervasive and utter disruption to our life with the global outbreak of COVID-19, it is that there is an urgent need to reconceptualize what is valuable to our life. To approach the question, we must first acknowledge what is sustainable in our society and what is not. Essential workers are valuable, yet exploiting them as contingent labor is not sustainable; social media platforms that can deliver factual information are valuable, yet tolerating them as neutral intermediaries is not sustainable. What we have taken for granted must now be reexamined.

It is often through breakdowns that the embedded, the convenient and the reliable become noticeable. The United States, the state that sees itself as the most powerful and technologically advanced, is seeing an exceptionally high number of confirmed cases and deaths both in total and per capita. In a matter of a few weeks, we went from “it can’t happen here” all the way to “why is this still happening?” This pandemic is one of the rare occasions when American exceptionalism as an underlying ideology of society becomes strikingly apparent — precisely because this time, the institutions have failed us. Last time, it was the 2008 financial crisis, and before that, it was 9/11. We are not just experiencing a temporary lockdown, but we are again witnessing a systemic breakdown of a “failed state.” As aptly elaborated by George Packer in his recent article in The Atlantic, “when the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly.”

COVID-19 has shaken the conceit of American exceptionalism, and Americans have been reckoning with the fact that this country is not a perfectly exceptional miracle. Nonetheless, the eurocentric vision of America, upon which American exceptionalism was built, remains. To put this in the context of racialized hierarchies, Americans still look up to certain countries and races while dismissing others. The American discourse on COVID-19 overwhelmingly points to Nordic countries as examples we can learn from. The rhetoric infers the underlying belief that these countries are socially, culturally, economically and politically similar to the U.S. On the other hand, the successes of South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan are largely acknowledged but dismissed because of the preconceived differences between East Asia and the United States. Yes, Vox, The New York Times and CNN talk about that, but it is not part of the broader American conversation.

Saying that the U.S. is similar to the Nordic countries is ludicrously far from the truth. It sheds light on the underlying envisioning of a white America. And this is the lens through which we can reexamine the fuzzy relationship between cyberpunk and American exceptionalism.

For those who are not familiar with cyberpunk, it is a subgenre of science fiction that tends to focus on a combination of low-life and high tech in a dystopian, futuristic setting. For contemporary examples, think of Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell. Ever wonder why cyberpunk cities have the tendency to look strikingly similar to Tokyo? Why is cyberpunk so steeped with Japanese references?

Cyberpunk emerged as a narrative that articulates the U.S.-Japan rivalry of the 1970s and 1980s through the logic of techno orientalism. For the American canon of the genre, the narrative centers around white protagonists navigating institutional oppression in a fluorescent landscape inundated with East Asian cultural signifiers like holographic geisha that connote sheer otherness. At the same time, East Asian characters are largely absent or remain insignificant in the narrative. In cyberpunk, East Asian culture is merely appropriated in technological artifacts but not embodied through human bodies. This points to the fuzzy racial tension manifested through the genre. As put by media scholar Lisa Nakamura, cyberpunk reaffirms the nostalgic hierarchies as a way of stabilizing a sense of the white self that is threatened by the emerging fluidity. It is only in a fictional dystopia that the American fear of being surpassed by a technologically advanced power can be expressed, thus leading to casting decisions like Scarlett Johannson in Ghost in the Shell.

In the past two decades, the narrative has since evolved to reflect the American fear of China’s postsocialist rise and the two countries’ interdependency. It is not a coincidence that cyberpunk sounds eerily familiar to the contemporary American sentiment toward China and other East Asian countries alike. The global outbreak of COVID-19 echoes a futuristic dystopia — an apocalypse that is culturally unforeseen but technologically imaginable. I believe it is not far-fetched to link such an allegory so abusively exploited in Hollywood to Trump’s insistence on the use of “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19. The American appropriation of cyberpunk is intrinsically xenophobic as an expression of fears about an Asian takeover of society.

Tying back to the eurocentric appraisal of the Nordic model, it reflects the underlying framing of East Asians as submissive and thus culturally incompatible with Americaness. American culture is reluctant to acknowledge Asian successes. Asians and Asian Americans are perceived as reliable workers, often tech-savvy, but never someone to look up to. On the other hand, Asian technologies are coveted and Asian labor is looked upon favorably. The imagery of cyberpunk that fetishizes the artifacts but dismisses all human factors saliently sheds light on the racial tension in American culture. It is through the dehumanizing lens on East Asian culture through which American exceptionalism is reified to maintain the hegemonic structure of whiteness.

I often point to the history of technology to shed light on contemporary cultural phenomena that appear to be fuzzily intertwined with technological advancement. I do so not because I am nostalgic of the past, but because I believe it is crucial to first acknowledge the past in order to move on. As we move forward, we have to maintain the critical lens to reconceptualize race and ethnicity after technology. And before you dismiss my argument based on my Asian last name, just a kind reminder that TikTok is taking over the American conversation when Trump is talking about the “Chinese virus.”
Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.