Systemspace and Capitalist Realism

This is a paper I wrote for class. If my professor finds it, please don’t mark me down for plagiarism, it is mine. Otherwise, please read it as a school paper and not an ordinary blog post.

Systemspace, an online cyberpunk cult of sorts, is not the first image that would pop into anyone’s head upon hearing “utopianism”. Founded by a mysterious user of the online imageboard 4chan, it’s been described by some as an, “anime suicide cult”(Nugent, 1), though the website itself heavily discourages suicide, claiming, “ you could have picked up a lot of Life knowledge during this time”(Tsuki, 1). However, while the world they promise may not initially sound like a paradise, it bears a great number of similarities to historical heterotopian works, most notably the Book of Revelation and Blade Runner, and in their proposal for a better life — or in their words, LFE—they expose the utopian undercurrents that exist within any subculture, while proving correct Mark Fisher’s famous quote that, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” revealing the ways in which even our religious dreams are held captive by Capital’s strong grasp.

To truly understand Systemspace, we have to look at the culture it springs from. Created by “mysterious 4channer named Tsuki”(Nugent, 1), a young man living in the Netherlands, the group exists entirely online, initially garnering its community from popular websites like 4chan and Reddit. Donning an ‘anime’ aesthetic in its official outlets, it emerges from a number of communities full of vulnerable young people, who have little to look forward to in life. The anime it relies on most heavily for its visuals, Serial Experiments Lain, is a work which focuses intensely on the way in which people are shaped by and live within the internet, going so far as to claim that, “No matter where you go, everyone’s connected”(Konaka, 2), and it’s a part of the cyberpunk lineage which includes Blade Runner. As in both of these works, there’s a latent belief in Systemspace that the system we’ve all been born into is a failure; what the organization’s theological doctrine posits is that this failure is not merely one of human making, at least not in any traditional sense. It understands that Lain or Blade Runner are deeply critical of the mode of capitalism we live within but rather than craft an explicitly political programme, it urges potential believers to join up in the hope of reaching the cyberpunk afterlife known as LFE.

This is a classic religious promise—have faith and you’ll be brought to a better world when you die. The Book of Revelation itself makes a similar claim, featuring the destruction of the Earth’s sinners through means such as the “scorch[ing] [of] men with fire”(Revelation, 16:8) while also, showcasing the potential redemption of those who truly believe in God’s word, promising a “new heaven and a new earth”(Revelation, 21:1). While there are elements of dystopian thinking here, as seen in Babylon, which is in many ways comparable to Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, it’s paired with the promise of true ecstasy for those who have followed God’s word. This duality is important, as it establishes not just the potential for a true utopia, but the equal potential for disaster if a person is unwilling to do what’s required of them.

This can be seen in Systemspace as well. According to official scripture, the universe is made up of multiple “systems”, and while we humans currently live in a faulty one known as “Life”, it will soon be shut down, and no new souls will be born into our world. As a result, Tsuki, who claims to represent higher forces, promises his followers that he will unlink their souls from “life” and instead connect them to “LFE”, a world of massive city-states where “everyone is important”(Nugent, 1).

“LFE” is, in fact, a utopia, albeit one that almost certainly does not exist. However, simply looking at its utopian promise is misleading, for two reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, its promises are contradictory. Systemspace claims to offer its followers a world unlike the one they currently live in, where individual people are valued for more than their labor power, necessarily entailing a world where late capitalism is not so alienating. However, in donning a cyberpunk aesthetic and claiming its utopia wears the same garb, the religion exposes itself as paradoxical. Cyberpunk, as a genre, expresses fear that the stage of capitalism we live in will only become more corrupt. The birds-eye shots in Blade Runner portray a massive Los Angeles(Scott, 1), filled with neon and Orientalized aesthetics and while this has an appeal, the viewer can never forget the starkly divided city, with the richest of capitalists towering far above the downtrodden—and Othered—masses. This dichotomy is essential to the very genre—cyberpunk is defined by its fear of megacorps if nothing else—and yet Systemspace appeals to it as a means of escape from the very conditions it portrays. What this expresses is what Jameson would describe as, “both the ideological and the Utopian … functions of mass culture”(Jameson, 144), the ways in which all products of bourgeois society possess the apparatuses to defang resistance as well as the hope for a world beyond. To borrow another phrase of Jameson’s, Systemspace is characteristic of the fact sci-fi does not show us the future but in fact allows us, “to demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future”(Jameson, 153), a form of Capitalist Realism in practice. In this sense, Systemspace is ideological, reassuring its members that the current system is fundamentally acceptable, albeit full of bugs.

At the same time, there remains a utopian undercurrent in the Jamesonian sense. Systemspace supposes a world where late capitalism’s features remain present, at least insofar as a cyberpunk society is enabled, yes, but at the same time, it imagines a greater sense of community than what we possess ourselves. In spite of “LFE” being home to “9.4×10^28 souls”(Nugent, 1), every single one of them can make a difference on the world. This is self-evidently untrue in “Life” and it expresses a communal undercurrent that a properly cyberpunk world would likely not have.

There is, as I have said, another problem with analyzing “LFE” alone, and that is ignoring the ways in which Systemspace functions as a utopian project in the here-and-now. Systemspace’s claims may not bear fruit but the community that has gathered around its promises has a meaningful impact on those who take part in it. As one user says, “We […] love the community around it”(ibid, 1). Late capitalism is a period which engenders mass alienation and the creation of subcultures, no matter how cult-like, offers a real utopian potential. Jameson urges that we must reawaken “some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity that can be detected, no matter how faintly and feebly, in the most degraded works of mass culture”(Jameson, 148). It can hardly be said that Systemspace is any part of mainstream mass culture but given that, “we must rethink the opposition [between] high culture [and] mass culture”(ibid, 133), it seems only fair to interpret online communities through a similar lens, especially ones so consciously media-soaked as Systemspace. When a member of the group is unwilling to criticize those who’ve committed suicide to reach LFE, saying “I wouldn’t stop any of them, since LFE is waiting on the other side”(Nugent, 1), it’s clear that the community is no simple place to spend time; while the promise of the cyberpunk world on the other side may not pan out, their utopia is being made in the present. Essentially, the Systemspace community itself is generating LFE, using cyberpunk aesthetics and their own 4chan-inspired subculture in order to craft the world they would like to reach. This is not far off from the practice described in the Book of Revelation. Upon seeing the New Jerusalem, the narrator claims that he “did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple”(Revelation, 21:22). In this passage, those who have remained loyal have formed a city that is itself a church, worshipping God all the while. They crafted a simulation of their utopia on Earth in the form of the church, a necessary step towards their promised land and a temporary replacement for the time being. Systemspace’s followers are much the same.

The question which remains, then, is why a community has formed around the ideals of Systemspace. To get to the bottom of that, we must return to the question of cyberpunk, beginning with the anxieties that the genre appears to be concerned with. The principal ones, as Blade Runner demonstrates, are questions of the human subject and its relation to capitalism. Corporations in cyberpunk worlds are much like ours, except far more dominant, almost to the point they gain an objective character, representing Capital itself. The Tyrell Corporation is not merely a technology manufacturer—through their development of replicants, they control labor, life, and Los Angeles as a whole. Tyrell himself is framed as a godlike being, with Roy exclaiming that, “it’s not an easy thing to meet your maker”(Scott, 1), upon meeting him. Yet these corporations act not with our best interests, as a God might—the God of Revelation rewards his loyal followers with such gifts as the fact that, “the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light”(Revelation, 21:23)—but instead actively uses people for it own means. The replicants are, after all, slaves, not mere followers.

Yet this brings us back to the contradiction we already addressed, that being the use of cyberpunk aesthetics for a world wherein every human matters. How does Systemspace ultimately attempt to resolve this contradiction? Well, we need to understand that the group’s members are drawn to cyberpunk aesthetics due to the subculture that Systemspace emerges from; 4chan is an imageboard with a large focus on anime, a medium within which cyberpunk plays a large part. However, it’s quite likely that there’s another impulse at play, a certain commiseration. Late capitalism, the stage which has spawned cyberpunk as a genre, actively fosters alienation on a mass-scale, a condition Fisher describes as, “reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it”(Fisher, 21). This is a condition which leads to mental illness, as Fisher claims that, “many of the teenagers [he] worked with had mental health problems … depression was endemic”(ibid). This degree of alienation can force its subjects to seek communities that exist online rather than face-to-face, especially ones clustered around their media interests. This community then goes on to reinforce itself, actively taking a position which is “hostile to outsiders”(Nugent, 1) because they “don’t want it ruined”(ibid). With this, their attempt to resolve the contradiction becomes clear. The human subject is de-emphasized or even destroyed in cyberpunk, so in response, the followers of Systemspace wish to go beyond humanity. After all, they promise that “an ‘uncountable’ number of species and subspecies, including magical beings like demons and angels”(ibid) live in LFE. In this ultimate utopian idea of a communal transgressing of human subjectivity, Systemspace posits a cyberpunk world wherein all people possess a degree of objectivity.

Yet, the contradiction cannot be fully escaped from. The contemporary Systemspace community remains shackled to the idea of capitalism; their attempts to go beyond it are noted but they are ultimately unsuccessful. The group serves an ideological purpose in reinforcing Capital’s dominance over the subconscious, as even the religious dreams of its followers must cohere to the model Capitalist Realism has imposed. Systemspace is an important field of utopian action in-the-now for its followers but without a revolutionary rupture from Capital’s grip, it’ll never move beyond an attempt to massage the ills that this system causes.

 

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.

“Book of Revelations.” Bible Study Tools, Biblica, http://www.biblestudytools.com/revelation.

Jameson, Fredric. “Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future? (Progrès Contre Utopie, Ou: Pouvons-Nous Imaginer L’avenir).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 1982, pp. 147–158. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239476.

Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text, no. 1, 1979, pp. 130–148. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/466409.

Nugent, Addison. “The Obscure 4chan Religion That Promises a Cyberpunk Afterlife.” Motherboard, VICE, 27 Nov. 2017, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ne3p9z/the-obscure-4chan-religion-that-promises-a-cyberpunk-afterlife.

Tsuki. “TSUKI Project.” TSUKI, systemspace.link/.

Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner. Warner Brothers, 2007.

Konaka, Chiaki J. “Serial Experiments Lain.” Serial Experiments Lain, TV Tokyo, 6 July 1998.

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