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Commentaries on this Media!

Commodity Fetishism, Virology and the Biopolitic

by Sarah Brin

If we consider Galloway's contention that, "While the disciplinary societies of high modernity were chracterized by more physical semiotic constructs such as the signature and the document, today's socities of control are characterized by immaterial ones such as the password and the computer," we can find kernels of relevance within the almost unforgivable silliness of Johnny Mnemonic.  For example, it helps us identify the heroic quality associated with Johnny's blankness, and his subsequent fluency with the navigation of networks, which translates to capital (both social and monetary). 

Johnny's breakdown indicates an anxiety catalyzed by the urbanization of public space. As he is now directly confronted by the other (The Low-Techs, the impoverished and sick urban populace), he laments the loss of his perceived individuality, which is directly tied to commodity fetishism (e.g. the club sandwich, the cold Mexican beer, etc.). Without the privileges that had previously been afforded to him, Johnny must reconcile his blankness with the needs of the biopolitic.

In "Allegories of Control," Alexander Galloway writes,"It is part of a larger shift in social life, characterized by a movement away from central bureaucracies and vertical hierarchies toward a broad network of autonomous social actors." Governmental authority or police do not have much of a presence within Johnny Mnemonic, and control is dispersed through a series of networks. Most obviously, there's the internet and telephones, but more interestingly, there's a virus. As Galloway and his colleague Eugene Thacker note in a separate publication (The Exploit: A Theory of Networks), epidemics are closely tied to globalization "because they are highly dependent on one or more networks." The authors give the example of SARS, a virus that affected the (1) the physical network of people who became ill, (2) the subsequent monitoring, tracking, and regulation of channels for travel (virus carriers on intercontinental flights) and (3) channels for news (covering SARS outbreaks, prevention, etc). 

NAS, an affliction affecting half of the film-world's population, is drastically more pervasive than SARS, extending its spooky future tentacles to media coverage (guerilla and otherwise), local economies (Spider's practice, Jane can't get work because of her illness), and global economies (Pharmacom's withholding of data to maximize profit). 



Meatspace and Class Differences

by slc68

In this scene from Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic, the protagonist’s rant about his loss of the trappings of a privileged life touches upon the relationship between embodiment and information technology as well as larger topics about race, class, and urbanity. Based on the short story by William Gibson, the Johnny Mnemonic film also inherits some of the atmosphere and characters from Gibson’s other early written works, most notably Neuromancer. In this particular scene, Johnny can be compared to the protagonist anti-hero Case in Neuromancer. Johnny’s hatred of being pulled from his normal upper class technologically saturated habitat and relocated in the run-down periphery of urbanity is similar to Case’s disgust at “meat” and bodies. The crucial relationship here is that privilege equates to living and working in disembodied dataspace, privileging work literally of and in the mind rather than work of the physical body. Johnny and Case are both addicted to technological networks, interacting with bits rather than atoms, unhappy with their lack of access to information and agency in physical, non-technological environments. For example, Johnny’s rant with the backdrop of urban decay and below the hideout of the “lo-teks” reflects this relationship. The lo-teks, in contrast to our console cowboy protagonists, live intensely physical lives, relying on bodily adeptness rather than data decks to survive. It is interesting to note that both Neuromancer and Johnny Mnemonic’s depiction of navigating disembodied datascapes is now extremely antiquated in light of the development of tangible media interfaces and pervasive computing, which take data and networks and integrate them with physical reality, emphasizing physical bodies and location in "meatspace".

This scene also relates to overarching topics of race, class, and urbanity. In Getting the Reality You Deserve, Bleecker brings up the shifting relationship between urban landscape and wealth and privilege. He notes that population flows are now not away from but towards cities. There is also this core versus periphery relationship present in the rant scene as extreme dystopia and lack of “civilized technology” is located away from the “free city of Newark” rather than within the core as depicted in Blade Runner and other cyberpunk works. However the urbanity of Johnny Mnemonic contrasts with representations of cities in simulations such as SimCity2000. In contrast to Wright’s utopic city simulator, the presence of race is presented directly to the viewer in the form of the anti-technological underground and their leader played by rapper Ice-T. Beyond this often repeated treatment of race, however, the film’s portrayal of the colored lo-tek “others” away from the central city is similar to the implied issue of race in SimCity. Like the game, race riots and other events of racial tension are not explicitly shown. Instead the film’s mysterious N.A.S. disease functions indirectly to relate to issues of fear of bodily harm from “unfit others”, harking back to AIDS and other health issues intricately intertwined with class and race issues. Furthermore, Johnny Mnemonic’s notion of cybernetic storage of critical medical information also deals with issues of the digital divide and access to information commonly discussed during the nineties. Here, getting the data out of his head to save the world reflects a techno optimistic belief that simply providing the third world access to information and technology is enough to solve deeply multidimensional problems.

Johnny Mnemonic personal crisis

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Keanu Reeves rants about his loss of upper-class privilege as an elite data smuggler

from Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Creator: Robert Longo
Posted by Critical Commons Manager