The Production of Subjectivity in «The Diamond Age» by Neal Stephenson

by Sarah Jonckheere (Author)
©2017 Monographs 117 Pages


The book brings to light Neal Stephenson’s answer to the technologically induced crisis in identity. The author of this book analyses the ethnocultural, technological, and ideological skeins that make up the biopolitical production of the self. The coming-of-age novel «The Diamond Age» reflects the processes surrounding the emergence of conscience. Through his inspired recycling of cultural traditions, Stephenson’s ethico-aesthetic engagement with technology, mass media, and literature advocates an epistemological change in being. This essay’s use of affect theory shows how a specific work informs literary theory and thinking, and how literature goes beyond reflecting the «zeitgeist» by offering creative ways to apprehend technology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The Ill Affective Turn; or, the Machinic Production of Self and Ideological Apparatuses
  • 1) The Fashioned Body of the Individual as an Invaded Territory
  • a) The Cyberpunk Hero
  • b) Of Mods and Parlors: Body Kitsch
  • c) (Re)Cycling Bodies
  • d) Mind-Bugging: Mediatrons as Affect-Images and “Mediaborgs”
  • 2) Collective Identities and the Mechanics of Living
  • a) The Feed and the Mediaglyphics of Self: Bulim(ed)ia
  • b) Polarizing and Vectorizing the Social Engine: Reaching Collective Homeostasis through Energy and (Eco-)System Conversion
  • c) Something Mechanical on Something Living: Ec(h)o-systems
  • 3) Erasing the Pre-Personal Self: Post-Humanimality and Spectrality
  • a) The Subject/Object Inversion: Parasites Launch
  • b) Post-humanimalities: from “I Object” to “I, Object”
  • c) Spectrality and Dis-re-membering
  • Part II: The Accumulation of Affect
  • 1) The Post-Cyberpunk Model: Subversion from the Inside
  • a) Post-ing the Cyberpunk Genre: Establishing a Transitional Space
  • b) “Psychogeographein”: Creating the Child through Literary Peregrinations
  • c) Lyrical Ballads 2.0: The Neo-Victorian Rebels as Partners in Crime and Partners in Rhyme
  • 2) Deep Meaning, Deep Mining
  • a) Epistemic Indeterminacy and Organic Affectivity: Catch My Fall
  • b) Sub/Conscious
  • c) Affect Overflow
  • Conclusion
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Series Index

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Self-described as a “bad correspondent” and as a “sociomediapath” on his official website, Neal Stephenson is also – says he – “an idiot savant whose ‘superpower’ […] is writing novels” (“Bad Correspondent,” n. pag.; “Why I Am a Sociomediapath,” n. pag.). Rapier-like, jauntily alkaline, and vitriolically bubbly as this self-ennobling statement certainly is, there might be more to Neal Stephenson than he himself is willing to recognize.

An American novelist fatefully born on Halloween 1959, Neal Stephenson is the son of a professor of electrical engineering and the grandson of a physics professor. On the maternal side of his scholarly lineage, his family was involved in biochemistry: his mother was a scientist who worked in a laboratory and his other grandfather was an academic. Stephenson’s interest in STEM and science-related topics most probably accrued in this environment, and, one can assume, it was further fostered with the advent of the (modern) computer, a then-nascent – but promising and budding – piece of technology by the time he sought a higher education. Predictably enough, upon entering college, Stephenson decided to specialize in physics but, unpredictably enough, he soon bifurcated; he preferred switching fields of study to pursue a B.A. in Geography (while still retaining a minor in physics) only so that he could “scam more free time on his university’s mainframe computer.”1 At loss to find a job matching his untested and unrecognized skillset as a geographer/physicist after he graduated in 1981, he took to dabbling for a while in diverse and sundry disconnected workaday activities before turning to literature; Stephenson began his writing career in the mid-1980s with the publication of The Big U (1984). His 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash earned him worldwide fame and recognition, along with a doting and besotted, but enduring and endearing, interest from the cyberpunk (cyber)community.

Yet, if Snow Crash was ditheringly poised on the border between cyberpunk and postcyberpunk – the author reused cyberpunk’s prototypical ← 11 | 12 → formulae while poking good-humoured fun at it – Neal Stephenson might arguably be described as a writer leaning towards the “post” side of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that came to prominence and public attention when William Gibson published his spear-heading, trendsetting Neuromancer (1984), a novel in which are to be found the defining elements of cyberpunk fiction. In the world of Neuromancer, futuristic, world-changing technology is not a possibility existing in a far-off spatiotemporal continuum, nor is it a booming, explosive contraption used to access extrasolar destinations to meet Martian or Jovian races. Rather, cybernetic technology – cybernetics2 being the science of control and automation in machines and living entities, it is a control theory applied to systems which notably focuses on how information is processed in dynamical systems using negative feedback loops – is already there, resting in the hands of reigning, politically empowered invisible mega-corporations which turn society into a dystopian world wherein decay is frothing at the surface of both the urban and social landscapes, and where information is the new fiduciary currency used to control society. Gibson’s dyadic, ambivalent stance towards an interiorized technology that both cripples and enhances the augmented cyborg’s body – the direct descendant of the Victorian thermodynamic automation and the syntactic and somatic compound of “cybernetics” and “organism” – and the wider and more global effects of said technology upon an inequalities-ridden, capitalist-driven information society has come to be the fulcrum of cyberpunk. At the same time, the progress made in the field of cybernetics has seen the emergence of a “cyberspace,” defined as a “consensual hallucination” (Gibson 5). The virtual space of the matrix is colonized by computer hackers, also known as “space cowboys,” and inhabited by entities that start growing ever more intelligent and conscious by the day. While both hold the promise for an extended, transcendental life beyond the Cartesian body, they are both trapped in the dynamics of a post-industrialist society which submits all living and machinic beings to its iron rule by holding back knowledge and keeping it under lock and key. The “punk” element of cyberpunk is to ← 12 | 13 → be found in the above-mentioned lionized marginal figure of the hacker, envisioned as an artist and a con-artist, a nebulous, subversive character who tries to oppose the system by re-appropriating technology. More often than not, these hackers are caught in an enmeshed web of conspiracies that plays tricks on the antihero and that works to blur the boundaries between controlled/controlling parties; it is soon revealed that the allegedly independent, free-thinking cyberpunk hero was nothing more than the puppet of an omnipotent Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Cyberpunk fiction, then, is articulated around the power strife between individuals and the “technopower” of biopolitics3 in a dystopian near-future where the characters have to learn to accommodate and adapt to a ← 13 | 14 → reality where technology is ever-present, all-pervasive, intensely stimulating and, at times, simulating.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Affect theory Literature Science fiction Conscience Deconstruction New technologies
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 117 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Sarah Jonckheere (Author)

Sarah Jonckheere is a scholar at the University of Lille in France where she pursues a doctorate in Anglophone literature. Her work focuses on British and American literatures, literary theory, philosophy, and cinema as well as on affect theory.


Title: The Production of Subjectivity in «The Diamond Age» by Neal Stephenson
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120 pages