“The tarot will teach you how to create a soul.”
- Jodorowsky, The Holy Mountain
Cyberpunk 2077 released last week, and like so many others I’ve been exploring the game (to the best of my ability considering the performance issues on my console hardware…but that’s currently being discussed ad nauseum across the Internet, and I am not interested in filing consumer reports). I’m still in the early stages of the narrative, and so far the game has delivered the aesthetic re-mixing of cyberpunk cultural influences in a neon-streaked metropolis run amok that I was expecting. But there have also been some more compelling surprises that get at a deeper level than the standard sci-fi trappings and veneer of Blade Runner pastiche.
Very early on in my time with the game I was frequently having to pause and investigate the various menu screens to get a handle on the mechanics and inventory systems (as well as to adjust the graphics settings in an attempt to optimize performance, but I already said that we’re not going to get into that). Among the inventory options I noticed a greyed-out/non-selectable tab labeled “Tarot.” This immediately piqued my interest. What did this reference to Tarot portend? Were there going to be collectible tarot cards scattered throughout the open world? Was there going to be some sort of Tarot minigame, similar to the Gwent card game that the developer included in their Witcher series? And, much more tantalizingly, what thematic resonance might the Tarot have for this futuristic cyberpunk story? Whether considered as a forerunner to traditional playing card decks, a tool set for divination and cartomancy, or simply an enduring example of medieval symbolism and Western archetypal images, the typical associations with Tarot seem incongruous with the cyberpunk universe populated by rocker boys and netrunners.
These musings were not idle for long. One of the first significant locations you encounter in the narrative is Misty’s Esoterica, a sort of spiritual emporium or New Age bookshop tucked away on a Night City sidestreet amongst various other storefronts. The shop’s proprietor, Misty herself, seems clearly modeled on the final appearance of Daryl Hannah’s replicant character Pris from Blade Runner (Misty goes lighter on the eye makeup). In initial dialogue interactions Misty will lament the diminishment of spiritual connection that she sees in the world. The storefront advertises chakra harmonization and the shop interior is filled with books, statuettes of vaguely Vedic deities, and one can only imagine the crystals and associated paraphernalia on hand; you can practically smell the incense burning. And Misty seems to always be handling a certain deck of cards.
At the end of the game’s first explicit tutorial section the trainer character evaluating my performance said something like “you have mastered the way of the fool.” I wondered whether this was another nod to the Tarot, and then shortly afterward I unlocked my first achievement in the game. The notification bore the name of the achievement: The Fool. Not long after that the second story-related achievement unlocked: The Lovers. The game was clearly tying the major arcana to its main narrative, and what I had been considering a mystical Tarot subtext was quickly becoming just plain text.
Themes of higher consciousness and spirituality remained prevalent even in the game’s ephemera and environmental set dressing. Religious iconography is omnipresent on Night City’s streets in the form of billboards and pedestrian garb. A scrap of lore text that I encountered in the open world offered thoughts on bio-augmentation and cybernetic implants from the perspective of a Buddhist monk. And some mysterious entity keeps texting my character’s phone with obscure messages like: “the only opposition to capitalism is uninterrupted meditation.”
Needless to say, I have found this incorporation of Tarot specifically and spirituality more generally to be one of the most compelling aspects of the game so far. In what follows I will broadly explore how similar themes manifest in notable examples of cyberpunk fiction, as well as the role that these considerations play in the cyberpunk genre.
Questions of Consciousness in the Cyberpunk Genre
Let me clearly state at the outset that I am not proclaiming authoritative knowledge of the cyberpunk genre (such as the true defining elements of cyberpunk fiction, or whether such-and-such example really qualifies as cyberpunk under certain requirements), nor am I invested either way in efforts at gatekeeping genre boundaries. I am also not going to attempt an explanatory history of cyberpunk ideas or artworks. The examples I cite below are drawn from my personal experience with cyberpunk literature, and I believe they are sufficiently representative for my purposes.
While it is possible to quibble over the definitive features of the cyberpunk genre, such as whether cyberpunk fiction is necessarily rooted in a particular political ethos (i.e. is it distinctly anarchist or merely anti-authoritrian?, etc.), I will argue that one of the central themes in cyberpunk fiction is the question of what it means to be human in a world transformed by technology. Prominent exemplars of the cyberpunk perspective typically explore this question via two main routes: consideration of quality of life in the material world, and more philosophical investigations into the nature of consciousness. We might further categorize these two aspects as complementary poles on an axis of outer life and inner life.
- The World
Cyberpunk fiction seems inseparable from urban sprawl. For example, much of the action of William Gibson’s Neuromancer takes place in the virtual matrix of the Net, yet equally integral to the setting is the Sprawl, a vast conurbation stretching the U.S. eastern seaboard from Boston to Atlanta. The external environment of sprawling metropolis and city-without-end is not simply a futurist projection of civilization’s inevitable course, but is intimately connected with the genre’s concern with exploring inner states of consciousness. A central insight of urban literature, from Baudelaire to Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, is that alienation is experienced most acutely (if not exclusively) in the midst of the crowd. Travis Bickle can only experience himself as “God’s lonely man” amongst the teeming masses of Manhattan. Being alone should not be mistaken for loneliness, and vice versa. So just as the frontier settings of Western literature tie the genre to primal themes of brutality and lawlessness in the project of “civilization”, the metropolitan settings for cyberpunk stories are linked to themes of alienation and dehumanization beneath the surface level aesthetic affordances.
Cyberpunk aesthetics remain closely associated with the 1980s era in which some of the most prominent genre exemplars emerged, and this is further represented by the particular perspectives of postmodern globalization that continue to predominate. The bustling market streets – whether in Blade Runner’s Los Angeles or Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City – portray the postmodern collapse of traditional metanarratives and distinct cultural cartographies via a polyglottal potpourri of floating signifiers (these two examples also share a strong orientalist aesthetic, a relic of 1980’s anxieties over Nipponese economic influence that the latter has merely inherited from the former [although 2077 updates this with Sino-corporate representation). Yet even the prominent appropriation of Japanese cultural markers in Western cyberpunk is ultimately window dressing for larger concerns over corporate capitalism. Corporations are the dominant powers in many cyberpunk stories – more so than nation states or any particular government agencies – and the symbols of their status dominate cyberpunk skylines through various corporate logos, advertising icons, and assorted sigils and glyphs of contemporary consumer culture. The denizens of this multicultural melting pot may lack a common language, but everyone understands the meaning of the golden arches.
The unremitting urbanization and caustic commodification that typifies cyberpunk worlds is often also correlated with destruction of the natural environment. This may be inferred or explicit. Natural degradation is often implied in the lack of vegetation or green space in the cityscape. Blade Runner establishes the scarcity of natural-born animal life, and even the artificial specimens are quite expensive. When Agent K takes a shower in 2049 an automated announcement states that this is “99.9% detoxified water”; this film also broadens the extent of ecological extinction to include living trees, making natural wood a rare commodity. Often this seems to function as an implicit critique of unchecked capitalism: food, air, and water having been irreparably poisoned as collateral damage of the profit motive. It furthers the question of what it means to be human in a world made uninhabitable to organic life. What place is there for biological organisms in an entirely artificial environment? It also further suggests the imperial conquest of the world by corporations. The domination of corporate entities is evident by their omnipresence in the built environment, their commodification and destruction of the natural environment, and even their near-monopolization of the semiotic landscape, the symbolic environment. In Cyberpunk 2077 Johnny Silverhand — terrorist anti-hero (?) and rocker boy anarchist — wages a crusade against what he terms “corporate colonization” of the lifeworld. In one optional dialogue interaction he roots his hatred of the corporations in their encroachment into the inner world, their colonization of the soul. This leads us to the second element of cyberpunk’s inquiry into the nature of humanity: the question of consciousness.
- The Chariot
So far we’ve delimited two central avenues through which cyberpunk literature interrogates the essence of the human experience: elaboration on transformations of the outer/material environment, and investigation of inner experiences of consciousness. The body is the nexus between these two worlds. Thus the corollary to the outer-directed question “what does it mean to be human in an artificial environment?” is the inner-directed question “what does it mean to be human in an artificial body?” One of the well-worn topoi of cyberpunk fiction is the distinction between hardware and software. Applying this metaphor to the human organism, hardware corresponds to the physical or material body while software refers to the spookier, more metaphysical aspects of the human experience. Cyberpunk characters regularly experiment with altering their hardware through augmenting, implanting, and replacing their body parts. They also often leave their body altogether by inserting their consciousness into some sort of virtual construct, typically via a bio-technical interface provided by their augmented bodies.
In a sense, the science fiction trappings of cyberpunk fiction employ new metaphors to explore very old questions. Emerging technologies merely provide instigation for revisiting well-trod philosophical ground. For example, take the Ship of Theseus (Wikipedia link): this ancient thought experiment posits a hypothetical sailing ship that undergoes repairs and replacement of parts over time. Eventually every component, every single plank of wood, has been replaced: nothing on the ship is original. The philosophical query thus posed is: is this the same ship as it was in the beginning, or is it an entirely new ship as a result of the total transformation? A similar notion is explored in Ghost in the Shell (I refer here to the 1995 anime, I am not familiar with other entries in the franchise). The central metaphor alluded to in the title hits upon the aforementioned cyberpunk distinction between hardware and software (ghost = software/consciousness, shell = hardware/body). The protagonist, Major Motoko, seems ambivalent and even alienated from her augmented shell body. This itself raises questions about the continuity of consciousness and personal identity across physical transformation. A key issue at the film’s conclusion concerns transformations within consciousness itself, and the degree to which the self is changed through encounters with others.
Ghost in the Shell also features the distinct cyberpunk trope of uploading one’s consciousness into a virtual space, a sort of neural interlinking with the Internet. William Gibson popularized the term “cyberspace” in Neuromancer, and that novel also concerns one of the other great engagements with consciousness in cyberpunk fiction: Artificial Intelligence. Part of the core plot of Neuromancer involves A.I. that are seemingly sentient, having achieved self-awareness. These A.I. develop their own volition, hatching plans and experiencing desires that are beyond (and oftentimes in conflict with) those of their creators. A.I. thus introduces another wrinkle in the cyberpunk exploration of consciousness: what does it mean to be human when consciousness is no longer the privileged domain of human beings? How does our understanding of humanity change when artificial beings (i.e. our technological creations) claim sentience? This question is of course at the heart of Blade Runner, one of the most singularly influential entries in the cyberpunk canon.
- The Hanged Man
What is Blade Runner about? Renegade replicants on the run in the dystopian urban landscape of Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future. Replicants are artificially created humanoids, a sort of biological A.I., with enhanced physical capabilities designed to make them more efficient laborers. Yet some replicants are not satisfied spending their entire lives as humanity’s disposable workforce. A group of replicants escapes their off-world colony and infiltrates L.A. in order to petition their creator — the head of the Tyrell Corporation — for more life. They are not seeking immortality, mind you: merely an extension on their programmed four year lifespan. Rick Deckard is an LAPD blade runner assigned to track down and kill the replicants (blade runner = assassin, i.e. someone who draws [runs] a knife [blade]; I’ve seen so much confusion about this simple point). As the narrative unfolds the lines between cop/killer and human/replicant blur to the point of indistinction. Deckard carries out his grim task with a palpable sense of ambivalence, except for in cases when his life is immediately threatened. His moral position toward the replicants is further complicated when he becomes romantically involved with Rachel, another Tyrell replicant. And the replicant leader Roy Batty commits cold-blooded murder, but also quotes poetry and expresses profound compassion for his companions. Even the replicants’ central quest is eminently understandable: who could blame them for wanting to escape servitude and seek to preserve their lives?
So Blade Runner engages the core cyberpunk question of “what does it mean to be human?” at multiple levels. The most obvious concerns the status of replicants as human beings. Are they human? Does their status as artificially created beings preclude them a priori from the full spectrum of the human experience? Essentially the question is: Do the replicants have a soul? (Blade Runner 2049, despite being a film I greatly enjoy, bluntly makes this point with a lack of nuance or poetic subtlety that typifies much of that production). Beyond posing a mere metaphysical thought experiment this question raises immediate ethical dilemmas for the fictional world of the film: if replicants are sentient beings like humans, then how can society justify condemning them to short lives spent in servitude in dangerous slave labor? Obviously this conundrum poses an ethical challenge for our real world, not just the fictional universe of the film: how can we justify condemning sentient beings to short lives spent in servitude in dangerous slave labor? The affluent societies of the so-called “developed” or “first” worlds are sustained by such exploitation. Indeed, human civilization has always been sustained by systems of slavery, savagery, and the instrumentalization of human beings as fuel for the fires of “progress.” (There are many other issues raised by the film that I will not be getting into for the purposes of this essay; one particularly pertinent thread that I will leave un-pulled for the time being concerns the notion of consciousness as an emergent property of matter, and not necessarily organic matter but even so-called “dead” matter; this idea could be understandably anxiety-inducing from a human perspective.)
This ethical dilemma begins to get at the deeper levels at which Blade Runner questions “what does it mean to be human?” Past a certain point, the question of the replicants’ sentience is irrelevant. By all outward appearances they are identical to human beings: they communicate, they form bonds, they pursue self-preservation, they express fears, they show compassion, they laugh, they love, etc. Any speculation about the presence or absence of a replicant soul is an empty exercise in theological theorization. But more than that, focusing on the issue of the replicants’ humanity misses the larger and much more profound question of humanity itself. The world of Blade Runner (in many ways an archetypal cyberpunk world) depicts the visual markers of environmental degradation and dystopic urbanization, yet the broader theme to be discerned is an attendant dehumanization. Deckard, like the replicants, is in his own way also instrumentalized as a tool by the larger systems that depend on exploitation, subjugation, and various structures of control. The question is not, “what does it mean to be human?” but rather, “what do we mean by human?” In other words, the important issue is not whether replicants have souls, but whether we have souls, and the broader implications of even positing the existence of a soul in the first place. To put it yet another way: the question is not “by what criteria do we demarcate human life” but rather “what is the value of human life?” What does it mean to be alive, and how do we attain to the higher notions of spiritual being that seem stubbornly recalcitrant in the face of banal drudgery and inevitable entropic encroachment in daily life? The debate over whether Deckard is an authentic human being or a re-programmed replicant with implanted memories represents a step in the right direction but ultimately misses the greater point. It doesn’t matter whether he is secretly a Tyrell creation or not: in what way does his daily existence as presented in the film display an essential humanity beyond what is demonstrated by the replicants? And more importantly, what does this ostensible acceptance of the “facts” of human existence reveal about the limits of our imagination when it comes to answering that abiding cyberpunk inquiry: what does it mean to be human?
- The Lovers
I’ve already suggested some of the ways that Cyberpunk 2077 is engaging with the aforementioned genre tropes of cyberpunk fiction. And I’m still in the early stages of the central narrative, so it remains to be seen what new topoi may be incorporated into this particular story. But I am far enough along in the game to have a handle on one major element (this isn’t really a spoiler, by the way, as it has featured prominently in marketing materials and the overall promotional campaign): the incorporation of the Johnny Silverhand character as a virtual personality construct within the player character’s mind. This situation is presented as a case of dueling psyches: V (the player character) is said to be experiencing two distinct personalities in their mind simultaneously. In terms of gameplay this mostly manifests by the Johnny figure randomly materializing within V’s field of vision to comment on whatever is transpiring at the moment, and engaging in dialogue with V that none of the other characters are able to hear. This aspect of the narrative overlaps with many of the cyberpunk themes and topoi already discussed: biological augmentation, speculation on the nature of consciousness (to what extent can this virtual engram or simulacrum of Johnny Silverhand be considered to be an actual personality? Johnny’s physical body is long gone, so is this his soul? Is he a ghost?), and the blurry boundary lines between hardware and software. V is told that the implantation of the Silverhand construct is irreversible and terminal: slowly but surely the Silverhand personality will override V’s psyche, his own personality will be erased and Johnny will for all intents and purposes be resurrected inside V’s body.
OK, so let’s get back to the role of the Tarot in Cyberpunk 2077: just what might the game be trying to get at by prominently incorporating the major arcana into its science fiction action-adventure story. Is it simply a cosmetic contrivance, just one more example of the game’s profligate plundering of existing iconography and pop culture references to fashion its fictional world? I don’t think it is mere window dressing, or “cool for cool’s sake” like so much of what has come to define the popular imagination of cyberpunk as a visual aesthetic. I am being generous toward the developers here (a somewhat unconventional, almost contrarian position considering the current state of Cyberpunk 2077 discourse online). Rather, I think the incorporation of Tarot and other allusions to esoteric spirituality is part of a good faith effort to meaningfully engage with the philosophical undercurrents that have always undergirded the best examples of the cyberpunk genre.
We’ve already covered how the inclusion of the Johnny Silverhand virtual construct correlates to perennial cyberpunk ideas and themes, so how might it relate to this overarching consideration of consciousness and the notion of the soul? In a sense, the characters’ souls are precisely what is at stake: Johnny has been resurrected from the dead, and now his only hope for a new life rests in V’s body. V is understandably reluctant to surrender himself as a vehicle for the consciousness of a long-dead rocker boy. In another sense Johnny seems to fulfill the role of a spirit guide: he is incorporeal, and can only be seen or heard by V. He offers V guidance, even though he often seems to be pursuing his own agenda. The relationship between Johnny and V, a struggle played out internally within V’s mind, also offers a metaphor for personal struggle and self-overcoming. Johnny could represent a lower self, the more base aspects of the psyche or personality that must be brought into awareness and under conscious will. Alternatively, Johnny could be correlated with a Guardian Angel, or a notion of a higher self to be integrated rather than transcended. Ultimately Johnny’s intrusions into V’s waking consciousness may be as inscrutable or open to interpretation as the reimagined Tarot images that appear throughout Night City: just one more shadow on the path.
I am curious to see how the spiritual themes and symbolism of Cyberpunk 2077 unfold as I progress in the game. Thus far I have appreciated how the designers have incorporated the esoteric as well as exoteric elements of cyberpunk fiction, the consideration of both outer and inner worlds. Irregardless of any technical limitations the game may be suffering at the moment, the overall design of Night City certainly captures the visual aesthetics and dystopic tone that one would expect from a cyberpunk environment.
Each day our waking reality seems more resonant with the speculative realities dreamed up in cyberpunk fiction. This year we have witnessed the desertification of cityscapes in the wake of global pandemic, eerie scenes that evoked imaginaries of urban apocalypse so familiar from pop culture portrayals. In our isolation and atomization we interface ever more with virtual spaces. Corporate colonization of the lifeworld, of both physical and virtual spaces of daily living, has exceeded previous hypothetical horizons. Longstanding issues of economic disruption, labor precarity, and housing crises are likely to only be exacerbated by the fallout of coronavirus. In such times the central question posed by cyberpunk stories remains one of the most worthwhile to ask and answer: what does it mean to be human?