It’s February 27, 1998, and none of us know who we are.
That’s more true of some of us than others, of course. I’m a teenager, for instance, still deep in that protean flux of trying on identities until one fits. And I haven’t figured out I’m a trans girl, so I won’t find one that does for another twenty years.
(It will be an incredibly powerful experience once I do. My entire world will realign around me, structuring itself into something that makes sense. It will feel like emerging into the sunlight for the first time.)
But none of us entirely know who we are, because nothing has gone the way it was supposed to. There was no Big One, just a wet fizzle as the Soviet Union imploded a decade ago, and for all the time since, we have been feeling like characters in a story that failed to end, sitting around waiting for something dramatic to happen.
We know who we were supposed to be. The Good Guys, who saved the world from Hitler, who stood up to the evil commies. Oh sure, there was that whole bit about the slavery, but that was a long time ago and it’s over now. And then the Civil Rights movement fixed everything, right?
But we were the evil empire all along, who fought the other evil empires not because we were the Good Guys, but because we wanted to be a bigger evil empire than all the others. We didn’t win the war between good and evil because there was never any such war; we won the war to be the biggest bully on the block. The Nazis learned by watching us, their racial policies just a Germanized Jim Crow, the Holocaust American-pioneered techniques of mass production applied to the American-pioneered techniques of concentration camp and genocide. Lebensraum is just German for “Manifest Destiny,” which is why we fought them–one imperialist expansion smacking into another. (Well, not really. The Germans and Japanese both learned from us, but it was the expanding Japanese empire that smacked into ours first. But they could ally with Germany because they had the Soviet empire in between them, and that’s how we ended up at war with Germany. The point: it’s all empires fighting empires; if you want scrappy bands of heroic rebels, look to the places already conquered.)
So why didn’t we know that? Why didn’t we know who we were? Because we only knew who we were supposed to be.
“Supposed to be.”
By whom? Who are these supposers, and why do we let their suppositions define us? They’re not Strangers, unfortunately, not hydrophobic leech-mouthed squid inhabiting human corpses. But neither are they people known to us–the people around us transmit the suppositions, enforce them on us, but never seem to be the originators of them.
“Supposed to be” isn’t just passive; it’s in the divine passive. The agent isn’t just moved to a prepositional phrase, it’s dropped entirely, as if this widespread supposition were instituted by an act of God. No one knows who supposes; we’re barely starting to realize that they suppose quite wrong.
And, as it turns out, treating it as an act of god isn’t that far off, and Dark City‘s metaphor is apt. The Strangers are a collective mind inhabiting human corpses, which is to say they are history, and the power structures that result. They are everyone who came before us, and the thing–the hideous, tentacular, reality-defining monstrosity that we call “our culture”–that those people collectively manifested. Not quite a god, but closer than anything else we can reliably locate.
That thing, collectively, tried to hide our memories of the past. Tried to keep us going, still functioning as we had before, even as darkness fell and daylight was forgotten. Tried to manufacture false histories, shift things around, find someone to slot neatly into the place the Soviet Union had once occupied. To persuade us, against all evidence of our eyes, that our society is as fair as we can possibly make it, that oppression is a matter of individual bad actors, that we are not all slaves to forces most of us barely even notice exist.
This is, of course, cyberpunk. The aesthetics of noir given a sci-fi twist, though this is noir-ier than most, in the sense that it retains the 1940s-vintage clothes and cars, and the main character is a good man in a corrupt world, neither of which are commonplace in cyberpunk. But it’s very clearly a point on the trajectory from Blade Runner to The Matrix; like the former, the questions it overtly asks are about personal identity, not the nature of reality like the latter, but it has a blatant messianic element that is more Neo than Deckard.
But questions of identity and reality are, in large part, the same questions. Is there a self independent of culture? Can there be one? It doesn’t seem like there possibly can, since we learn who we are from the people around us. But if there isn’t, how can we possibly hope to change our culture? How is it that people turn out not to be who they were “supposed” to be?
Dark City answers, rather patly, by invoking the soul. That seems overly simplistic. At the same time, there is something that seems to predate our first encounters with the culture: personality research suggests the existence of a handful of traits that can be identified in the womb and remain mostly stable throughout life. Those aren’t enough to make an identity, and without culture, of course, there are no labels by which to name them, but there do seem to be patterns or tendencies that are not derived from external sources. At the same time, we are also greatly shaped by our experiences, and we frequently internalize many of those suppositions.
This, in turn, means that the struggle to define ourselves necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the power structures around us, because it is those structures that establish “supposed to.” This, in turn, links to the thematic concerns of cyberpunk, its projection of the dystopian present into a dystopian future. “This is the logical endpoint of those structures,” it says. “This is what the world looks like if we all keep doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be.” Mostly, that means corporate power, the tyranny of wealth swelling until it is singularly able to define our reality, but it includes other forms of power as well, particular in how they violate the self and the body.
It’s February 27, 1998, and I don’t know who I am because I’m in high school, and we don’t know who we are because the apocalypse never came, and the dark city is a vision of a future in which this state of being continues forever. These things fit together, inextricable from one another: high school and adolescence and the uncertainty of identity; the uncertainty of living in the near-apocalypse; cyberpunk. A natural cocktail, if you will, a recipe from which to engineer the next step in our story.
His name is Terry McGinnis.
That’s the what. As for the why…
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