“These readings are close, Dougal. Those readings are far away.”

For academics, teachers and students of English Literature, I think questioning the nature of their main activity – reading texts – is pretty central to the practice itself. I don’t raise this in order to restate the notion that the humanities are in ‘crisis’ (see Paul Jay’s book or this Times Higher Ed piece) but rather to articulate the strange “wood for the trees” moment provided by Barbara Hernstein Smith’s excellent talk-turned-paper “What Was Close Reading? A Century of Method in Literary Studies”. It helps us to consider how we might be said to take close reading for granted as a practice, especially in the secondary school classroom, seeing it as a kind of a priori thing to do, without really understanding the ideological – and pedagogical – drives behind this particular method.

‘Method’ is a word that’s been knocking around my head a lot lately. I’ve been trying to think about clarifying the methodology for my PhD. I’m not a social scientist, nor am I gathering any data as such – I read. I’m tempted to put down that I’m adhering to the obvious practice of reading the texts and then writing about them (this kind of petulant response might be a version of RTFM) but this isn’t doesn’t demonstrate an understanding that every reading has an ethical or ideological structure to it, which drives the type of interpretation we come to. Even the choice to close read something stems from a particular way of thinking about the value of a literary text.

Smith’s piece outlines the context from which close reading evolved, that being the classrooms of New Criticism. What’s interesting is that it stems from a pedagogical needs to establish a mode of viewing a literary text which will enable students to interact with it productively. Experienced English teachers will know the feeling of trying to get students to view a text in the right way, and might be a little affronted by the idea there are other ways to support interpretation which aren’t simply close readings. But is this all we do as part of our varied levels of criticism? Smith identifies that part of the problem with viewing this method in isolation is that it ignores a lot of the other cultural material we make use of when writing criticism. It also suggests a kind of automatic aestheticism, a “reverse engineering” as it is referred to in the paper, although arguably this method can always be put the service of any kind of reading.

Part of the need to readdress the issue of close reading is, as Smith suggests, to do with the phenomenon of distant reading in the digital humanities. This suggests that examining patterns in large number of texts using computational or algorithmic methods can demonstrate things which a traditional close reading can’t, and that to stick with the former method is maintain a practice that is outdated. While the example from Franco Morreti is certainly interesting, the idea that distant reading should replace or usurp close reading misunderstands the nature of literary criticism, and subordinates the object of study itself.

I can see the use of a digital approach to literary scholarship – we use networks, search tools and digital archives as ways of making our research a smoother process, as well as allowing us the capacity to make new connections. But Smith hits the nail on the head when she identifies that any question around the value of close reading is a question about the essential value of literary criticism:

the grounding in personal observation and experience opens the possibility of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences, which—largely, if not wholly–is what motivates our interest in a literary interpretation as such. And, along with connections to broader intellectual issues and other concerns, that grounding and that attendant possibility—of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences—are also what sustain the value of much historical and theoretical research in the humanities as such.

Arguably, the notion of “shareable insights” relies on the kind of personal interaction with the text that close reading promotes – without close reading, we limit ourselves to the sole position of digital historians of literary texts. Why not augment close reading through the synthesis of ‘big data’ approaches with personal interpretation? I don’t doubt that this is happening already.

Further to this, Smith confirms the idea that close reading defines the discipline, because of the desire for this kind of reading to be carried out which is found in all those involved with the practice reading and writing:

[the] ability and disposition also remains more generally crucial. The hope of receiving such reading is what keeps most of us scholars and researchers as well as poets and novelists writing.

Although there are firm arguments for the value of close reading, Smith’s paper does demonstrate that it is important to critically evaluate the modes of inquiry we use to interpret – even those which seem to be utterly at the heart of the practice in the first place.

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Posthumanism in Contemporary Literature – Ben Lerner’s 10:04

If you clicked this link expecting cyborgs, then I’m afraid I’m not going to indulge you (not yet anyway, although that is all very much a part of posthumanism, just not the part I’m talking about here*). I’m reading Stefan Herbrechter’s Posthumanism: A critical analysis (2013) and I’m a big fan, not least because it’s helping to articulate some of the stuff that I see as really central to the relationship between print literature and digital culture.

Posthumanism is a way of thinking that challenges the assumption, or myth, of the human as it has been constructed up until now. It stems from the idea that notions of what constitutes human nature, even in its broadest or most general sense, are problematic, not least because those notions are not natural or truthful, but rather based on Enlightenment conceptions about what it is that we are. (“Man is an invention of recent date”, so says Foucault.) For Herbrechter posthumanism is firstly deconstructive, and one of the main points of reference is Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard, Herbrechter shows us, recognised that conceptions of the human based on a false opposition between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ are essentially flawed. This is because such an opposition ignores the fact that any conception of whatever might be essentially human creates the category of inhuman, and, put very crudely, this is socially and politically problematic. The idea of the human being which stems from Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking, and which (very basically) says we are sovereign selves with a natural capacity for reason, is shown to be a form of prejudice. Lyotard articulates this when he asks “what if what were “proper” to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?”, leading us to see a void at the heart of what we might instinctively label as human nature. The ‘essence’ of the human is in fact its ‘absence’. As Herbrechter succintly puts it, if the human species is a historical effect, human nature is simply a historical affect.

In the face of what he labels the contemporary “inhumanity of the system”, Herbrechter suggests that the starting point for critical posthumanism is firstly to reevaluate the place of the human in existence as no longer “the sole hero in a history of emancipation”. Secondly, and I think more importantly,  posthumanism is to “acknowledge all those ghosts, all those human others that have been repressed during the process of humanization”. To me, this posits a more dialogic understanding of lived experience, one which does not lead to exclusion and inclusion based on prejudiced notions of what is “human” or otherwise, in the face of the “incredible grand narrative” of liberal humanism. Posthumanism is an opening up of otherwise closed ideas about what constitutes the human condition.

So what does posthumanism thinking look like? For one, it must take seriously “technocultural conditions” although their “inevitability” must be contested. It must also recognise the essentially political energy of technology and technological interaction:

…for every introduction of technological innovation, changes to the system also incur changes within cultural relationships. In the cases of the internet these are new interpersonal relations […] and above all new forms of consumption; but there is also potential for political change through for example electronic voting systems and new forms of interactivity, new possibilities for surveillance as well as instant (or realtime) global communication, new forms of e-learning and many other possible present and future uses. (Herbrechter, p.19)

It is one of the jobs of posthumanism to  “critically evaluate this technological change” in the face of a potential “replacement of a humanist value system with a post-humanist one”. This value system, continues Herbrechter, is one which must admit to the accelerated and intense nature of technological changes, making “analysing the process of technologization” central, whilst remaining aware of the danger that technology will render another grand narrative or cultural hegemony. Posthumanism must be plural, maintaining “radical interdependence or mutual interpenetration between the human, the posthuman and the inhuman”.

Where might literature fit into posthumanism? There is the obvious role science fiction continues to play in showing scenario-based conceptions of an augmented human reality, and Herbrechter’s book devotes a chapter to this, emphasizing science fiction’s vast importance to understanding contemporary culture through a multitude of popular forms. However, I see posthumanity as a prevalent theme in many different kinds of contemporary texts, including mainstream literary fiction. This is not to devalue the unique and nuanced perspective science fiction gives us, quite the opposite; it is to suggest that the perspective of science fiction is becoming in part central to the way novelists who would not call themselves “sci-fi writers” see the world.

 
In my view, what we might call literary fiction, or more simply “writers that critics unashamedly like”, also engages with the central concerns of posthumanism, that “radical interdependence”, a recognition and critical engagement with the inhuman. I would argue that in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014), for instance, there is a preoccupation with how interactions between self and other are conditioned, and the ways in which the inhuman, found in the form of the technological interaction, constantly reconditions an understanding of the self. The narrator of Lerner’s novel  after reading an e-mail from friends, one of whom has been admitted to hospital, is moved to describe the influence of technological interaction on the sense of his personal and ethical environment:

As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a  liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important personal news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone while I was abroad in the city that I could plot on a map, could represent spatially, the major events, such as they were, of my early thirties. Place a thumbtack on the wall or drop a flag on Google Maps at Lincoln Center, where, beside the fountain, I took a call from Jon informing me that, for whatever complex of reasons, a friend had shot himself […]  (Lerner, p.33)

As he lists more examples of “important personal news”, the technological condition of these experiences appears, for the narrator, to locate them outside of himself, in a way which transforms the experience into something ghostly or inhuman:

And so on: each of these experiences of reception remained, as it were, in situ, so that whenever I returned to a zone where significant news had been received, I discovered that the news and an echo of its attendant affect still awaited me like a curtain of beads. (pp.32-3)

The “echo of its attendant affect” points towards what might be called an expanded ethical understanding, that is, a reseeing of the most important moral or life-altering events, not least because the haptic metaphor of a curtain of beads suggests the experience has a revelatory quality. This understanding stems from the technological conditioning of interpersonal communication, allowing as it does the narrator (as the subject) to acknowledge the inhuman through the medium of the message. The other person, the person communicating through the tech device, isn’t there when that life event happens, but because of that initial distance they are constantly there later, as a ghost, when reflecting on the event afterwards. And this conditioning alters, broadens and augments the ethical perspective.

This is only a brief example, but it is one way in which contemporary literature can be seen to engage with concerns over the nature of the human being in the twenty-first century, where “being a subject means ‘natural-cultural-technological'[…] being a social animal means being a ‘techno-social animal’ (Aronowitz and Menser, in Herbrechter, p.21):

New technologies not only pose the question of the human anew and with increased urgency, but they challenge the entire humanist system of categorization and exclusion. (Herbrechter, pp.28-9)

If, as Herbrechter suggests, we accept that technology is valuable as a “privileged form of the inhuman”, then analysis of it will help us to dismantle problematic and dangerous concepts of categorization and exclusion of those groups, those people, who prove problematic to closed conceptions of the human, i.e. those constructed as inhuman, or as Other. We should be open to the post-human voices in any texts which resonate with representations of the technological that reflect our everyday interactions. Concerns about the nature of the human being can and should be directed at the fiction which shares those concerns, for fiction itself is the essential inhuman construct, that which helps us see difference, and view again a version of those events which are important to the way we understand our own being in the world.

Bibliography

1 Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism : A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

2 Ben Lerner, 10:04 (London: Granta Books, 2014).

 

*Oh go on then.

“Exactly the way you imagine”: The Ethical Status of Technological Connection in Jennifer Egan’s The Keep

I’ve been looking in detail at Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, and thinking about the ethics of the technological interaction, as well as the image of the human being Egan gives us. Communication through phone, radio and the Internet is instrumental in constructing our understanding of the main theme of the novel, how we connect with other human beings. The protagonist (of the main narrative at least), Danny, finds mental and personal comfort in all kinds of technological connection. When his desire to be connected is satisfied, it often manifests itself in an embodied reaction becoming a physical, haptic thing. Egan connects the digital – what is sometimes considered a separate world, a form lacking in humanity – with biology, with embodied experience.

This might make Danny a post-human construct, one who relies on technology as a way of framing his experience. The intimacy of the reactions, the “joy” he feels, comes from the fact that his is better able to comprehend himself, his “place in all things”. Danny, it seems, is someone who has to come to understand (or has always understood) his life as episodic. Consider his multiple identities, his shifting jobs, his dislike of remembering things. It is through singular moments of technological interaction that he is able to maintain his relationship with other people – they are not part of the past or the future, but are ‘in the moment’ of connection too. The alternative is constructed as a form of living death:

To Danny, the thought of disappearing like that was worse than dying. If you were dead, fine. But being alive but invisible, unreachable, unfindable – it would be like those nightmares he used to have where he couldn’t move, where he seemed to be dead and everyone thought he was dead but he could still feel and hear everything that went on.

Without connection, we are not alive. This insecurity surrounding connection and disconnection, between society and isolation, between life and death, is contained in the form of the novel. A Neo-Gothic text, The Keep is preoccupied with the reworking of traditional Gothic devices: the revenant runs throughout every level of the text. All the characters in the novel have something to forget, something that they that they want to remove from their narratives: the traumatic event that nearly killed Howard; Danny’s guilt over leaving Howard “to die”; Mick and Ann’s affair; Holly’s drug addiction. This wide range of conflicts, from childhood trauma to adult love, demonstrate the ethical complexity of human life. Human beings have to deal with ethically problematic events, conflicts in which we don’t come out as morally sound as we might want to. How to live with the consequences of actions which disturb your comprehension of yourself and of your relationship to Others, the thing which in Danny’s words builds “a pressure in your skull”, is the central concern of this Gothic narrative. The revenant, in Egan’s hands, becomes a way of describing the tragic arc of human life. The most significant example of this is the way the ‘castle’ narrative works as a form of therapy for Ray, the murderer trying to comprehend his actions while doing time, during his writing classes taught by Holly.

Ray’s authorial voice breaks through into the “written” narrative at many points throughout the novel, but the final breach at the climax of the ‘castle’ story confirms the human concern at the heart of text, and articulates the conflict involved in remembering or unremembering morally problematic acts. Ray appears to be mentally conversing with the construct, Danny:

Where the fuck did you come from? I said.
Danny smiled. He said: You didn’t really think I was going to leave you alone?
He said: Haven’t you learned that the thing you want to forget most is the one that’ll never leave you?
He said: Let the haunting begin. And then he laughed.
He said: We’re twins. There’s no separating us.
He said: I hope you like to write.
And then he started to talk, whispering in my ear.

Ray can’t forget the thing he most wants to forget, when he killed a man for reasons which are never clearly articulated; he actually rejects the idea that there is an intelligible reason for the killing. This act, reflected in Danny’s shoving of Howard into the pool, is reminiscent of Meursault in L’Etranger, as though this novel could be seen as in counterpoint to the self existing in a kind of authentic isolation after killing the Other (I’m not about to jump into the L’Etranger question here, but it’s an irresistible parallel). To continue with the reading of the human and connectivity in Egan’s novel though, this passage appears to highlight the insecurity at the centre of her version of humanism. It is conveyed in the form of a conversation, as though one pseudo-connection takes the place of a connection which was negated, wiped out, and has left anxiety in its wake. With interior insecurity comes forth the voice of the Other in Ray, as though trying to reconstruct the inter-subjective concern he himself so violently rejected with his crime.
At this point, where the different sites of repression in the novel are drawn together, Ray’s cellmate Davis’s quasi-supernatural radio (the shoebox of dust and human detritus, the magic-technology that Ray comes to believe in) is the only ‘sound’. It becomes a silent solace beneath the problem of being unable to forget, representing the possibility of meaningful connections with the Other again, connections which are not conditioned by the trauma of memory. These are episodic connections – ones that we can repeat anew, again and again, without fear of those previous conflicts destroying our ability to be happy, or content, or joyful.

The message we might take about the ethics of technology in human understanding is this. Human beings need to comprehend and rethink the actions they regret, the moral conflicts which have gone wrong, in order to be able to live as moral beings. And whether it works or not, the technological interaction is a way of rewriting – or rewiring – ourselves, to replay and repeat the confrontation with the other person, with society, in order to help us re-imagine those things which would otherwise disrupt our ability to understand our place in relation to other people, and thus to live effectively within a form of ethical integrity.

Egan reworks another key Gothic trope – that of the sublime – in presenting what can happen when the subject is able to move past those conflicts which corrupt out moral understanding, as Holly appears to be able to at the end of the text. Her voice attempts to articulate the sublime moments of experience, when “things are exactly the way you imagine they’ll be”, when one regains control over interactions – when freed from physical or mental boundaries which isolate us. This articulation, I have argued, is realised through a construction of the self/other intersubjectivity as conditioned by technology, one that is transcendent. There is a final synthesis of this at the end of Holly’s story, and the end of the novel itself, which combines the sublime moment with a ritual of connection, the ‘click’:

In the total quiet of this place, I can hear snow falling through the air and landing on the marble. A trillion invisible clicks […] and I don’t know if it’s the snow, or the night, or that pale green water, or something else that’s separate from all that, but as I walk to the edge of the pool I’m filled with an old, childish excitement.

For this novel, isolation in any form is an ethical problem, and technological communication is a way of breaking out of the self, to imagine your way out of prison, to be reassured of having a place in the world. Making a connection which engages our imaginative capabilities is the only way to regain knowledge of the self, to recover when one can no longer comprehend the ethical choices we have made.

Rewriting Dystopia: Ethical Conflicts in Juli Zeh’s ‘The Method’

The tension between state and individual is arguably what defines the most influential or important literary dystopias. Zeh’s novel – The Method (2009)  – is an original modern example of a genre which essentially asks the same questions of human society through different sci-fi tropes – what rights of the individual can be sustained or justified in the face of a government which purports to work for the greater good of society? The closest analogue here is Huxley, but there are shades of other sci-fi stylists to be found. The form, I would argue, is tangibly different, and significantly so for the way we understand its messages about ethical conflict. It is almost aphoristic in places – Nietzsche is ever-present in the protagonist’s brother, Moritz – and the narrative voice contains a lachrymose note, a resignation, as if asking the question itself is problematic, a repetitive structure. It doesn’t have the pride of a self-reflexive post-modernism, but a kind of weary fatigue, a concern about how the answer should be or could be phrased.

In this sense, I’d suggest the form and structure of this conflict narrative is a peculiarly twenty-first century version of the subject and society. We often understand the central question as a conflict between the protagonist and key symbolic, authoritarian characters – John and Mustapha Mond, Winston and O’Brien, D-503 and the Benefactor – but in The Method there are multiple representatives of authority – Sophie, Hutschneider, Kramer, Barker – all of them with their own personal holdings of virtues and vices. There is no singular dystopian figure; throughout the novel these characters become more transparent, more morally complex. They are only in part representative of The Method, that is, the notion that the literal health of society, the eradication of disease and the monitoring of citizen body metrics to maintain collective social vitality, constitutes the ultimate condition of social well-being. In the hands of those characters with access to power, this biological-utilitarianism becomes what every other ethical system becomes – a vehicle to enact authority and manipulate the populace. The ‘Right to Illness’ is in part linked a la Brave New World to humanism and liberal ideas, with the smoking of cigarettes turned into a revolutionary act, but the eventual resistance to the system stems from the uncovering of political corruption and mass concerns over political control, not a sustained challenge to the ethical status of The Method itself.

The generic convention of rebelling against the forces of dystopian oppression is subverted subtly by Zeh, in a way which indicates a wider, less easily identified ideological conflict. Mia Holl asks for “time to herself”, “peace and quiet” and explains “she wouldn’t mind being ill”. This is indicative of a kind of malaise, brought on by mourning, rather than any kind revolutionary zeal. Mia is upset by the political and personal circumstances surrounding her brother’s death. As a scientist, she does not wish to reject the ideals of the method entirely – her concerns are about the institutions which establish it. Her discussions with Moritz recur throughout the novel and demonstrate that she does not work in philosophical absolutes. Zeh allows the conflict between social good and individual freedom to continually run inside Mia. She is also called liminal – a “witch” – and the process through which she is to be punished by the state compounds her ethical status further. She is to be frozen in a form of stasis.

The person who calls her a witch is Zeh’s most intriguing formal creation, the ideal inamorata. This character is somewhere between morality-play-figure, a basic realist foil and a sexual partner. She sometimes resembles a kind of late 19th century aesthete in tone and manner:

Mia is sitting at her desk with her back to the room; from time to time she jots something down on one of the sheets of paper in front of her. Meanwhile, the ideal inamorata is reclining on the couch, clad in her beautiful hair and the light of the afternoon sun. We don’t know if she understands what Mia is saying or even if she can hear her voice because she doesn’t show any sign of listening or understanding. For all we know, the ideal inamorata may live in another dimension that borders on Mia’s world. Her gaze, as she stares into space, resembles the lidless stare of a fish.

The ideal inamorata’s “relationship to matter is tenuous” and this is something which defines her as apart from the world of the novel. Often, this semi-character provides significant insights as to the nature of Mia’s self, or the nature of the conflict at hand.  In a novel that is concerned with the political status of the body, a clarifying voice is given to a character who is disembodied. When Kramer first enters Mia’s apartment the uncertain status of the ideal inamorata is confirmed – “he is untroubled by the look of revulsion on the ideal inamorata’s face – not because he doesn’t care what she thinks, which he probably doesn’t, but because he can’t see her.” Kramer both sees and doesn’t see this character, because she exists within the margins of the form of the narrative. She interacts structurally in conventional ways – she is part of dialogue, she is described spatially in the same way as other characters – but she shifts the form of the narrative. The ideal inamorata ruptures the fabric of the ethical totality of health, as such rupturing the fabric of the dystopian world, . Undermining all of our desires to see the novel as a way choose how to be good, to rebel against oppression, to explain the threat to individual liberties caused by the blind commitment to a moral hegemony, is negation embodied by this particularly unreal piece of formal experimentation. Even when the inamorata calls Mia to “make a decision”, denying the middle ground over whether Moritz’s death was “good or bad”, she immediately follows it with a call to stasis – she calls Mia over to sit on the couch, turns on the TV and the chapter ends.

And it’s this I think that the novel gets right, the notion that ethical conflicts in the current age are tired. It is linked to the language used to define moral concepts, which on both sides appears to lack clarity or conviction. The status of every character in this novel is psychologically and morally messy. Even the end of the novel establishes a kind of stasis – it isn’t Winston or John’s end. (Cf. the ‘not quite endings’ of other twenty-first century novels). Contained within you’ll find clear critiques of Utilitarian desires to define and live by opposing forces of pain and pleasure (Kramer’s first and second category idea) and you’ll feel the same revulsion at the illegitimate powers exercised by a totalitarian authority. But the relationships between characters go beyond any kind of moral clarity provided by traditional moral language, and the fact that the clarifying voice of the inamorata exists outside of the protagonist’s reality, outside of the formal reality of the dystopia itself, serves to confirm this.

The Techno-Ethical: On Dave Eggers and The Circle

There’s a certain critical hype which surrounds novels that arrive at just the right moment. Dave Eggers’ The Circle managed to become the novel of the moment in 2013, a timely satire on a Google/Apple-like company and a young girl who begins working for them, Mae. It was just the thing to puncture selfie culture, to rebuild the wall between public and private, a “chilling dystopia”, as important as “Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World“. While I agree with a lot of this judgement, the really significant theme of the novel for me is the nature of the ethical questions addressed by it. Eggers presents  a scenario of how the pursuit of technological enhancement leads to ethical totality, where privacy of any kind is made at odds with the aims of a progressive society. The driving force of the novel is not the technological structures themselves, but rather the insecurity these structures help to foster in society – the way interaction is structured.

Central to Eggers’ satire is the status of knowledge in the modern world, and how it contributes to decisions around what to do and how it should be done. The ethics of the world Eggers imagines develops into a form of techno-utilitarianism, whereby incredible-yet-familiar hardware combines with algorithmic advances to nullify threats to the social fabric. Crime, murder, abduction of children – all are brought under control through the constant surveillance of the SeeChange system of ultra-portable, ultra-powerful cameras. Many of these ills are understood in utilitarian terms, such as not incurring the costs of incarceration by stopping crime through major surveillance, or the better quality of life provided to another by allowing someone them to access a video stream of your holiday experience.

Mae becomes enveloped in the world of The Circle when she gets a low-level job there. Eventually, the advances she is made part of, often through large company presentations and cult-like audience events, lead to questions around whether a human being has the right to any form of privacy, outside of parameters which society – or, rather, the company – set. One of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who run The Circle, Bailey, is at his most evangelical when decrying the loss of “any knowledge”, whether “human, emotional, scientific”. Mae herself comes up with the neo-Ingsoc slogan “Privacy Is Theft” after being confronted by Bailey on the ethics of secrecy, sharing and privacy and how it might lead, in tandem with a neo-liberal focus on market growth and the monetisation of experience, to a better society.

The real debate comes down to the rights of the self in relation to the Other – but in this case, the ‘Other’ is online society as a mass, individuated by their online profiles specifically, but deindividualised by the form of those profiles. Everyone is a set of information searchable by algorithm, which means that the Other turns into a tool, an object. The final images of the novel, where Mae posits that we should, and could, have access to the human mind itself, to make open all of human thought in the interests of safety and security – to know no evil lurked within – is the ultimate manifestation of the desire to objectify the Other, the natural extension of social ethical system which has lost the time-lag needed to recalibrate its moral understanding in the face of technological advances.

The idea of getting into consciousness, of wanting to know the Other, and of that being the ultimate goal of human interaction, put me in mind of an older metaphor for the self or social identity – that of the ‘cage’. It is an image that recurs in the novels of Henry James and communicates the inability of the human being to be able to enter into the consciousness of another – we’re all in cages, looking out at others, attempting to communicate whilst trapped within. The Circle transforms the desire to know, to break into the cage, the desire to be less lonely, into a parable about the loss of humanity. We’re in these cages for a reason, it says, and whatever is contained within, whether it has the potential to mend or destroy lives must stay there. Ty, the head of The Circle and the man who created the entire system, states they must regain “balance” towards the end of the novel, between the systems of surveillance and the ability to keep secret information which will hurt others. This balance is central to how we understand the ethics of technological interaction, and it is one that Eggers shows is disrupted by a futurist ideological drive, the drive for progress. The problem is that our cages are no longer fixed in position, they constantly shift and alter with the social environment, and we can reach so much further past the bars than we used to be able to.

Although Eggers’ satire is a powerful one, he does acknowledge the deeply human desires this kind of technological interaction might satisfy. Mae, at one point, when she can’t get in touch with anyone she knows, feels lonely and despairs. She quickly seeks human contact. The hollowness, the black “tear” she feels rip inside at points is allayed by different forms of human interaction, even the technological. The problematic ethical concerns of the novel are exposed and augmented by technological forms and structures, but they are not created by those structures. These are problems that were already there. The technological structures used to explore them allow us new ways of understanding them – and new ways of being scared of them.

In this sense, The Circle follows Brave New World in that it is a dystopia that becomes, from a canted angle, a utopia. The end is reminiscent of Huxley, but Mae chooses to stay as part of this world, where she is an influential member of the new wave of understanding and democracy. She continues to pursue, with the other two wise men, Bailey and Stenton – the “info-Communist” and the “ruthless Capitalist” – a utopian totalising of the world brought about by the control of knowledge. The political implications of this are dangerous, but one utopia is only ever challenged with another idealised notion. The counter arguments about going off grid and isolating themselves from Mercer or Ty are not convincingly put. The novel essentially dismisses the nebulous ethical statements of these two male characters. Do we have to completely disregard the narrative of success for a young woman who has risen to the top? Who sees a “perpetual light” in the future of civilisation? The Circle is disturbing in the tradition of the very best dystopian fiction, but our ways of reading dystopian fiction need to develop to encompass the networked world. It is easy to say “What a disturbing picture! Isn’t technology awful!”. The harder and more important task is to consider carefully how to explain and define what we mean by the “messiness of humanity”, those “uncertainties” of the world which will always remain. We might now be reconditioned by technologised world, but we’re still asking how to be good, how to learn about what it means to live in connection to Other human beings.