In the darkened room whose windows would have offered a view of the Kremlin, had they been scraped clean of paint, Cayce had known herself to be in the presence of the splendid source, the headwaters of the digital Nile she and her friends had sought. It is here, in the languid yet precise moves of a woman’s pale hand. In the faint click of image-capture. In the eyes only truly present when focused on this screen.
Only the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark.
– William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003)
This quote from Pattern Recognition, the 2003 novel by science fiction author William Gibson – often referred to as the “noir prophet” of cyberpunk – demonstrates what is perhaps the most powerful theme in a novel filled with brand names, slogans, pop culture references and slick, slippery prose that wraps around the reader’s mind like a boa constrictor, refusing to let go; it’s a novel that asks the eternal question of what constitutes “art,” and whether true art is even capable of existing in a consumerist society. This passage, which noticeably abandons Gibson’s prior tendency of constant product name-dropping, illustrates for the reader a scene that is mysteriously beautiful, ethereal and pure. Incredibly pure. Pure, like the creation of art should always be, in an ideal world.
However, in today’s cynical day and age, we’ve come to accept that the creation of art often isn’t pure anymore. These days, society has difficulty believing in the idea of the dedicated individual slaving away, melting the fiery passions of his or her heart into the work like candle wax. Art for art’s sake is becoming far too rare. All to often, art doesn’t spring from the soul anymore, no; today, art is instead designed by a committee. Art—and for that matter, the artist—is a lump of clay, often carefully formed by corporations into whatever shape will most appeal to their customers.
Does true art exist anymore? Is it possible? Even more confusingly, is the creation of true art—or passion itself, always ethical?
Various actions taken by the characters of Pattern Recognition raise a variety of moral dilemmas. For example, are the actions taken by the Russian mafia to protect “the maker” worth it? One is tempted to immediately say yes, without question, but it’s a question which bears consideration. Then there’s Damien , the music video director (with a fairly minor, but pivotal role), who films a documentary about the excavation of a long-buried WWII airplane near Stalingrad – and then, as the excavation reveals the corpse of a Nazi pilot inside the plane, he continues to film the savage brutalization that his digging team performs upon the corpse, for the sake of his documentary. Despite this brutality, should he keep this footage? Should he let it taint whoever it taints? Should he display its barbarity to the world? And then, in another section of the novel, we have a situation where two internet hackers are able to gain key information on their particular passion by manipulating a sad, lonely Japanese man named Taki; they’re able to make Taki spill the beans by creating a fictional internet profile of the girl of his dreams. Is this deception morally forgivable? Sure, it’s easy to say that the ends justify the means, but one can only bathe in so much blood before dirt starts sticking to it.
The somewhat cold—yet by the end, surprisingly likeable and endearing—protagonist of Pattern Recognition is Cayce Pollard. Cayce has a somewhat unusual profession; as a “coolhunter,” she can accurately judge the marketing effectiveness of a new brand or logo with a single glance, an ability which has proven to give her a relatively stable income despite the fact that she works freelance. This ability hails from the fact that Cayce was born with a rather unique allergy; she’s literally allergic to logos. It could be Mickey Mouse. The McDonald’s logo. Or even worse, Bibendum, better known as the Michelin Man. Her allergy to the Michelin Man is actually so severe that it’s caused a deep-seated phobia within her. Credit goes to Gibson here, for making a ridiculous trademark like Bibendum into a surprisingly scary symbol of corporate advertising.
Cayce, as it turns out, is a remarkably “untainted” human being, partially owing to (or perhaps entirely because of) her allergies. Her person, her wardrobe and her entire apartment is free from all branding—she goes so far as to remove every logo from her minimalistic black, grey and white clothes—and she is thus free from the influence of any corruption, outside of herself. However, unlike many “pure” characters in literature, she’s also very human. Despite her attempts at purity, the nature of her career necessitates that she swim around in the very poison that she hates: commercialism. Tacky, character-defining (or defiling, as the case may be) commercialism, the kind of commercialism that has, in the present day, reduced many forms of art—be it fashion, movies or literature—into toy commercials, a thinly-veiled excuse to line the pockets of corporate executives.
This is why she loves “the footage.”
“The footage,” as it’s called, is exactly what commercial media is not. It’s clean. It’s mysterious. It’s clearly done out of passion for film, and not created as a product. In the footage, Cayce sees something miraculous, something impossible. In the footage, Cayce finds herself clinging to a seemingly thin idea known as hope.
But naturally, she also wants answers. This brings her into the employment of a wealthy businessman named Hubertus Bigend, who is also intrigued by the footage; he views it as the most successful viral marketing campaign of all time. He seeks to capitalize on it, but to do that, he needs Cayce to find the mysterious “maker.” If Cayce’s hell is the arena of utter commercialization that she walks in daily, then Bigend is her Lucifer. So Cayce enters into this Faustian deal, and she finds that it hits her far more personally than she may have anticipated.
See, despite Cayce’s calm, cool exterior, she’s actually an extremely vulnerable woman. These vulnerabilities – and the fact that she works through them, instead of running away—reveal her to be an exceptionally brave character, an alien creature walking through a word of symbols painted on the skins of blank figurines. She lives in a world so conditioned to the idea of mass-marketing that she becomes a contemporary Dorothy, trapped in a commercialized Oz. Adding to her difficulties, Cayce has a strained relationship with her mother, a woman who obsesses over EVP signals.
In sharp contrast to this is the character of her father, Win Pollard, a highly-pragmatic CIA agent who disappeared on 9/11. His disappearance leaves no corpse, no reasons and no explanations, which has inflicted deep wounds in Cayce; it has imprinted upon her psyche an obsessive need for answers, a need for truth, a need for meaning—a need which isn’t satiated by her work or her failed relationships, but is satiated by the footage. Art is meaning; meaning can be found in art. Still, she searches for an explanation regarding her father’s disappearance. None is found. As she remembers Win telling her, when she was younger, “always remember to leave room for coincidence.”
Coincidence. Apophenia. Another prevalent theme of the novel, apophenia is defined by Gibson as “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” The human tendency to find patterns in random information; often, these patterns are completely imagined. Yet when it comes to the footage, all of the seemingly random coincidences throughout the story all do tie together. Why? Because that’s how conspiracies work. Sometimes, if everything seems to fit a bit too perfectly, it’s because it all really does fit. One should look for order in the chaos. One should always try to recognize the patterns around oneself.
And with that, we come back to the idea of art and commercialization; perhaps through art, we are able to see the order? Commercialization can act like cobwebs, obscuring the beautiful picture – but if the picture is beautiful enough, is it not worth looking through the webs? “The footage” displayed in the story is art at its most uncorrupted; however, to be successful, most art forms do not have this luxury. In today’s world, in order for art to reach a wider audience, it necessitates that it becomes, on some level, a product. So, this raises the most important question; is it possible for a creation, be it film, novel, music or even an advertisement, to simultaneously be both a commercial product and a work of art?
Yes, it is. The truth is that commercial products can simultaneously be works of art – and the existence of a fascinating book like Pattern Recognition proves it.