Cyberculture and the "Crisis" of the Middle-Class: A Critique of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition

Rob Wilkie

In the United States, culture is largely geared towards the production of a "middle-class" reality. By "reality," I do not mean the actual conditions in which people live. Rather, I am referring instead to the ways in which the economic conditions that shape people's lives are made to appear in popular culture as transhistorical, without "reason," and thus natural, inevitable, and beyond social transformation. The image of the middle class that one finds repeated endlessly in films, television shows, novels, and music until it becomes the sign of the "real" is premised on the idea that the middle-class represents a post-capitalist space "in-between" the class antagonisms of owners and workers. That is to say, the "in-between-ness" of the middle-class lifestyle—the ability of working families to afford (a few) commodities previously accessible only to the wealthy, from homes and cars to dvd players and iPods—is taken as "proof" that as technological advances increase the productivity of labor, "there is a lessening of class polarization and class contradictions" (Nadel 11). The function of middle-class culture is, in other words, ideological. Its purpose is to make the exploitation of wage-labor under capitalism appear to be a "fair" and "free" exchange. In this sense, the ideology of the middle-class represents the consumerist framework of the so-called American "way of life"—democracy as shopping. 

However, in context of increasing economic insecurity for large sectors of the working class, whose declining wages and disappearing pensions mean that they must now go into debt to maintain their "middle-class" lives, the image of the middle-class as having escaped the contradictions of capitalism is in sharp contradiction with the actual conditions working people in the United States are confronting: 

The hourly wages of average workers are 11 percent lower than they were back in 1973, adjusted for inflation, despite rising worker productivity. CEO pay, by contrast, has skyrocketed—up a median 30 percent in 2004 alone in The Corporate Library survey of 2000 large companies. Median household income has fallen an unprecedented five years in a row. It would be even lower, if not for increased household work hours. Americans work over 200 hours more a year on average than workers in other rich industrialized nations. We are breaking records we don't want to break. Record numbers of Americans have no health insurance. The share of national income going to wages and salaries is the lowest since 1929. Middle-class households are a medical crisis, outsourced job or busted pension away from bankruptcy. (Sklar O05) 

And, as a recent article in Fortune notes, education, which is always represented as the "key" to middle-class living, particularly in the age of "iPod Capitalism," means much less than it did even six years ago. In the period from 2000-2004, "The real actual earnings of college graduates declined 5.2 percent" and "College graduates […] look more outsourceable by the day" (Colvin 57). In other words, images of the middle-class as "in-between" space are losing purchase in a society increasingly polarized between owners and workers. 

In response to the current economic climate, when rising housing, education, and healthcare costs mean taking on high levels of debt and making what were (previously) seen as "un-middle-class" choices between eating, paying your energy bills, and buying medication for your children, it has become necessary for ruling class ideologues to redefine what constitutes a middle-class life. For example, conservative columnist David Brooks has begun worrying out loud about the downward effect corporate globalization is having on the "status" of the middle-class. In a recent column, "Of Love and Money," he argues that the consumer lifestyles which have long been the predominant image of the success of the middle class are becoming a poor measure of the health of the economy because of the rising debt loads most working families are now carrying. Instead, he writes that unlike years past, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that "the gap between rich and poor is widening" and that the decline of the middle-class means "there is a basic tear in the way the market economy is evolving" (A27). While Brooks mildly concludes that rising bankruptcy rates, lack of affordable healthcare, and stagnant employment levels mean only that "people at the middle and the bottom of the income scale aren't seeing the gains you'd expect" from an expanding global economy, his solution, nonetheless, is a return to lost "middle-class" values. He writes, "If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults" (A27). In other words, being a member of the middle-class has become less about the appearances of conspicuous "consumption" and more about having the right "values." 

"Values" has become a popular way of relocating the middle-class because it dematerializes the cause of the crisis of middle-class "reality" in capitalism. As the current crisis shows, there is no "in-between" space in capitalism, a binary system divided between the few who own and control the means of production and the majority who must sell their labor-power for a wage in order to survive. In other words, as technological advances have enabled capital to outsource the jobs which once provided the incomes that for a brief period sustained the middle-class lifestyle to depressed areas of cheaper labor-power, it becomes clear that the middle-class is not a real position in the division of labor. Rather, it is an ideological displacement of the actual class divisions between owners and workers. The turn to values is an attempt to maintain the image of the middle-class as the space of post-class "in-between-ness" at a time when belief in the "in-between" has become a form of hip, post-political cynicism advanced by cultural theorists such as Slavoj Zizek (The Parallax View) and made popular by The Daily Show. Representing the antithesis of the "soul-less" culture that is said to define both corporate America and the working class, the middle-class becomes the space of the "soul." It is the "in-between" space, in short, in which capitalism (supposedly) remains "friendly" and "ethical" in an increasingly unfriendly and unethical world. 

The shift from "consumption" to "values" is at the center of William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition. Described by The Economist as "the best exploration yet of the function and power of product branding and advertising in the age of globalization and the Internet" (online), Pattern Recognition has become in a short period of time a canonic cultural reading of the cultural changes occurring as a result of globalization. The story of a "knowledge worker" who has become disillusioned with corporate "brand" culture, what has made Gibson's novel so appealing, I argue, is the way in which it combines a hip, left-wing criticism of the homogenization of "local" culture by transnational capitalism with a right-wing spiritualism to create a post-political, post-ideological "cyber" reading of the contemporary that, through the guise of a search for "soul" in a "soul-less" world, speaks to an increasingly anxious working public and restores their faith in the idea of the middle-class as a space of repose from the social inequalities of capitalism. 

The central character in the novel is Cayce Pollard, a freelance "coolhunter" whose job is to travel the world in search of emerging cultural trends before they reach the mainstream for advertising agencies that use these trends for developing new ad campaigns. At first glance, it would seem that as a "knowledge" worker who has reaped all of the benefits of the supposedly post-industrial world of immaterial labor Cayce represents precisely what both left and right theorists of globalization such as Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (Multitude) celebrate as the cultural engine of the new global economy. That is to say, her job in reading and interpreting the quickly changing cultural landscape of globalization—part of the "pattern recognition" of the title—means that she not only works within the up-to-the-minute reality of iPod capitalism, but serves as one of the primary cultural architects who enable corporations to "pivot into the new century" (10). 

However, as the novel opens and Cayce arrives at her music-video directing friend's stylish apartment in Camden Town, the market district of London, where she has taken a job with a "post-geographic" corporation called Blue Ant to review a new sneaker logo, we get a very different reading than that of a group of cyber-hipsters working at the boundaries of culture. Instead of the celebrations of technology and consumer society that one finds in early cyber-globalization novels such as Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, Cayce is described as feeling trapped in globalization's "dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm" and, despite staying in an apartment full of the very kind of consumer goods she helps advertisers to more effectively market, finds that it is unable to meet her "reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation" (1). That is to say, although the apartment appears to be filled with the kind of commodities that are supposed to represent the full freedom of "choice" available to Western consumers—a "German fridge," an "Italian floor lamp" and "electric kettle," and an "imported Californian Tea Substitute"—they are said to be "as devoid of edible content as [their] designers' display windows in Camden High Street" (1). Rather than representations of the exciting life of the new global elite, the accoutrements of consumer society she is surrounded by are described as "very clean and almost entirely empty" (1), unable to fulfill the promises of maintaining the comfortable life through consumption that has come to be associated with the middle-class lifestyle. Furthermore, in what is described as "an experience outside culture" (137), we later learn that Cayce's father disappeared on September 11th—having been there for no known reason" (134) and is presumed killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. Thus, at the time of her arrival in London

her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage. (1) 

By opening the novel with the sense of unease and cultural dislocation that marks Cayce's relationship to the images of a consumer society that have seem to have lost all meaning after September 11th, Gibson establishes that she is a character who is out of step with the commodified culture of globalization. The contrast between the apartment which is "full" of all of the signs of consumer society and the spiritual "emptiness" these signs are now said to represent is symptomatic of a reading of the contemporary in which the images of the middle-class as a leisurely life of consumption no longer seem to correspond to the actual conditions of economic insecurity and political alienation that most readers are now facing. 

The "irony" of the opening is that despite the fact that her job depends upon her ability to read the new cultural trends, what differentiates Cayce from other coolhunters, and what has made her one of the most successful, is precisely her inability to read the changing signs. Although she describes her job as trying to "recognize a pattern before anyone else does" (86), she has succeeded as a coolhunter not by reading the codes but, instead, by harnessing a kind of subliminal counter-response to brand names, described in the novel as "a morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace" (2). Gibson writes, 

She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She's a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult. (8)  

In one scene, Cayce has an allergy "attack" after being confronted by a Tommy Hilfiger display while walking through the menswear department at Harvey Nichols, forcing her to face the possibility that globalization means an increasingly "virtual" world in which the soul is obscured under levels of simulacra. She states,  

My God, don't they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo kit and regimented stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul (17-18).

Although Cayce's "outrage" that others cannot see that contemporary culture is nothing but a diluted version of what has come before is meant to mark her as "different" from the existing, it is significant that this outrage does not mean much more than taking an "ethical" approach to shopping. That is to say, even though she is described as an "anti-consumer" who literally vomits at the sight of certain logos (97), Cayce's primary complaint about contemporary culture is that it is "derivative." It is such that she does not so much as turn away from consumer society, but rather retreats into what is represented as its more "authentic" past. Her "difference," in other words, is really not that different. It is simply a change in terms. In her desire to avoid one commodified reality, she chooses another, less familiar (because it is "out-dated") form of commodified reality. In fact, she is not even allergic to all of contemporary culture. For example, upon her arrival in Japan, she "remembers" that "the way certain labels" such as Gucci and Burberry, "are mysteriously recontextualized" in Japanese culture means they "have no effect on her" (127) because of what she describes as the "Japanese way" of production is to make "an imitation more real somehow than that which it emulates" (11). Furthermore, in a flashback to a day spent in the former East Germany, communism is described as "manifestly cruel," "nasty" and "petty," because, she "protests," it was not as aesthetically pleasing as the West (270). It is such that the reader learns that it is not "consumption" that is actually the problem, but the choices you make when you do. It is, in other words, a question of cultural values. The binary that Gibson establishes with Cayce's decidedly modest outrage—you are a "good" consumer if you purchase outdated or hard-to-find fashions and a "bad" one if you don't—assumes that it is consumption and not class that defines your position in society. What is presented as "anti-fashion" and a means of resisting consumer society actually reproduces the ideology of consumer society with a vengeance. 

Cayce's retreat from the hyper-market of globalization into an older market semiotics leads her to what is represented as the "other" of the derivative consumer culture: a series of video and still-image fragments that are being mysteriously posted on various websites and internet newsgroups without any indication of who is producing it, whether the scenes are old or new, or why. Known as "the footage," what makes these images so appealing to Cayce is that unlike contemporary culture, which is represented as semiotically "empty," the footage is semiotically "neutral" in that it appears to lack any context. In one fragment, for example, the lack of visual cues mean that it is impossible to know whether the actor is "stepping onto a submarine in 1914" or is "a jazz musician entering a club in 1957" (23). Because the footage seems to resist any singular interpretation, Cayce finds it to be completely "masterful" (23).

"Neutrality," however, is an ideological fiction. It erases the fact that the meaning of any sign is determined historically, by the level of development of production. By proposing that meaning is produced through the individual act of reading—reading as consumption—the image of neutrality maintains the idea of culture as an "in-between" space of personal desires that corresponds to the ideology of the middle-class. On the surface, in other words, whereas the emptiness of the commodity form is attributed to the reduction of all interpretations to the same one meaning through corporate advertising, the neutrality of the footage appears more "open" and "democratic" because it allows anyone to read (consume) it however they want. In this way, interpretation becomes a metaphor for the "free market" and the idea that consumption, rather than production, determines meaning. It is for this reason that Cayce, an "anti-consumer" who is really a more sophisticated consumer in disguise, becomes so obsessed with the footage. It allows her the appearance of momentarily escaping the contradictions of consumer society into an alternative community that is like going to "a familiar café that exists somehow outside of geography and beyond time zones" (4). Pattern Recognition has become so popular among "middle-class" readers because it makes the world appear strange, but never different, and thus maintains the illusion that reading, like consumption, is a personal act of meaning-making without any reliable connection to reality.  

Because it appears to Cayce to be irreducible to any one reading, the footage comes to represent a new form of consumption with "values" and it is on these terms that she accepts the offer by Hubertus Bigend, the owner of Blue Ant, to finance her search for the maker of the footage. It is telling that during the search for the producer—a search that takes her across the global terrain of capitalism: from England, to Japan, to Russia—Cayce also begins to confront the "reasons" for her allergies as well as possible solutions. That is to say, as she gets closer to discovering the creator of the fragments, she begins to realize that she "is, and has long been, complicit…in whatever it is that gradually makes London and New York feel like each other, that dissolves the membranes between mirror-worlds" (194). However, this feeling of complicity is short lived—it is immediately dismissed as "a mood"—and thereafter Cayce begins to meditate on the meaning of life. While commodities can be easily replaced, lives, she concludes, cannot. "However odd things seem, mustn't it be to exactly that extent of oddness that a life is one's own, and no one else's?" (104). As Cayce has been firmly established in the narrative as the "anti-consumer," the reader is thus led to believe that, despite whatever Bigend's intentions are, Cayce's desires are "pure." As opposed to corporate figures such as Bigend, she refuses to impose any reading and thus embraces everyone's individual desires as they are. Her acknowledgement of complicity in that which makes her ill is simply intended to mark her as a "realist" and thus, in spite of her "illness," a trustworthy reader of the contemporary. In an ideological twist, then, Cayce's search for the creator of the footage offers middle-class readers the illusion that (more) consumption is the only means of restoring lost values to a world that previously had been criticized as having been emptied of value by (too much) consumption. In other words, although Cayce is represented as a defender of the "old" values, the dismissal of her momentary questioning of her role in expanding capitalism—the real effect of a politics of consumption—as a "mood" is the effective elimination of any alternative to capitalism. There is no revolution, in short, simply a new way of reading the same. In this, Pattern Recognition turns consumption into an act of resistance and makes anyone who thinks that a more fundamental social change than changing one's shopping habits is necessary to transform an unequal and unjust economic system appear to be too out of touch with the new reality. 

The novel concludes with the discovery that the producer of the footage is a young woman, Nora, a former filmmaker who has lost all ability to communicate as the result of being injured during a mafia bombing in Moscow. Cayce learns that the footage is taken from the closed circuit cameras in the hospital where the woman stayed while recuperating and that it is rendered for internet distribution by the inmates of a prison established and run by her oligarch uncle, described as "the richest man in Russia." What makes the footage so "special" is that it has been Nora's only form of communication since a small piece of a claymore mine originally produced in America became embedded in her skull. Gibson writes, 

this one specific piece of ordinance, adrift perhaps since the days of the Soviet's failed war with the new enemies, had found its way into the hands of Nora's uncle's enemies, and this one small part, only slightly damaged by the explosion of the ruthlessly simple device, had been flung into the very center of Nora's brain. And from it, and from her other wounds, there now emerged, accompanied by the patient and the regular clicking of her mouse, the footage. (305)

In the end, Cayce learns that the footage is being used by Nora's Uncle and Hubertus Bigend to develop an information distribution network, created in part by the role Cayce has played in testing its security as she tracked down the "maker" of the footage. What is significant about this is that despite the fact that she has directly contributed to the opening of post-Soviet Russia to the global market, something which might have previously contributed to her anxiety because it ultimately means the further homogenization of culture, Cayce nonetheless loses her allergies and regains her "soul" (356).

Cayce regains her soul because she recognizes in Nora's "silence" the possibility of a playful space "in-between" the daily routine of the working class and the cultural homogeny of corporate globalization. Like Cayce, Nora does not create anything "new," but rather works within the existing to repackage the everyday in unfamiliar ways. However, whereas Cayce's "resistance" was ultimately limiting because it could only ever be a nostalgic return to the past, Nora's "silence"—essentially a more severe form of Cayce's allergy that places her entirely outside of the current semiotics of the marketplace—is meant to be taken by the reader as the purest form of meaning-making because its meaning is entirely "personal." The footage is thus intended to represent a more "ethical" form of capitalism for the 21st century in which the meaning of a commodity is not imposed unilaterally through corporate advertising but rather created individually by each consumer to fulfill his or her personal desires. Cayce's easy reconciliation with the system that previously had made her violently ill reflects the fact that what the novel is proposing does not actually challenge the underlying logic of capitalism—namely, the exploitation of labor by capital. Instead, it teaches the middle-class reader the problem is not capitalism but advertising and thus that all we need to do to resist corporate globalization is to adopt a more individual approach to consumption. That is, what matters are not the things we own, but the values we have. By arguing that you can change the world through shopping, Pattern Recognition is a lesson in finding moments of "resistance" within the logic of the market.

As the declining status of "middle-class" workers in the United States demonstrates, however, their means of survival under capitalism rests solely on their ability to sell their labor power. For example, even the complex computer skills that once required years of study and often resulted in a high-paying job, a nice home, and other aspects that are said to make up the "social status" of middle-class life have been made "simple" by more recent technological developments and no longer command the kinds of high wages they once did. Instead, while developments in production create the potential for meeting the needs of all, under the capitalist system the impetus of using new technology solely for the accumulation of profit by the ruling class contradicts this possibility and, in the words of Marx, "dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the laborer…constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labor, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence…and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy…turns every economic progress into a social calamity" (I: 490). Despite its "anxieties" about corporate globalization, by locating the solution of capitalist exploitation in finding the right "values," which is simply another word for consumption, Pattern Recognition naturalizes the exploitation of wage-labor and works to obscure the fact that the only way the middle-class workers can escape the current economic crisis is socialism. This is what makes the novel and its consumerist logic such an appealing middle-class narrative.

Works Cited:

Brooks, David. "Of Love and Money." The New York Times. 25 May 2006: A27.

Colvin, Geoffrey. "The Poor Get Richer; Blue Collar Workers are Making Salary Gains--But Don't Cheer Yet." Fortune. 20 Mar. 2006: 57.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Berkley Books, 2003.

"Home Entertainment." The Economist. 4 Dec. 2003.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. Marx-Engels Collected Works. Vol. 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

Nadel, S. N. Contemporary Capitalism and the Middle Classes. New York: International Publishers, 1982.

Sklar, Holly. "A Vanishing American Dream." The Record. 1 Jan. 2006: O05.

THE RED CRITIQUE 12 (Winter/Spring 2007)