A fragment about Cyberpunk and Infinite Jest

Cyberpunk thus made the vibrant imaginary of a human-technology continuum spectacularly visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s, birthing an entire subgenre of science fiction about the human subject in technology.[1] The sense in which cyberpunk attempted to articulate “technological modes of being in the world”[2] highlights that the genre primarily developed an affective aesthetic. The characters in these texts constantly feel new technologies. Vivid images of the way such feelings are experienced and navigated define texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, the first instance of digital textuality – text attempting to describe the conditions and experience of digital technology – as a robust phenomenon in print. The next perhaps unexpected way-point for digital textuality, however, comes in the form of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 1996. While Wallace’s novel doesn’t necessarily directly address the lived reality of digital computer technology in the 1990s, the technological conditions and media ecology of a near-future dystopian North America influence the plot and overall atmosphere.  Detailed descriptions of digital screen technologies litter what has been valorised by the academy as an important literary accomplishment comparable to Ulysses in scale, imagination and literary merit.[3] Such status is premised on the usual hollow categories of literary value. Yet the novel can be read as borrowing devices from the cyberpunk genre to furnish its plot and to frame the existential crises of its main character, Hal. Most notably, the fatal cartridge which if watched will incapacitate the viewer, The Entertainment, is commensurate to the Snow Crash virus in Neil Stephenson’s novel of the same name. The Entertainment is the ultimate destructive technology, which works by a viral mechanism to destroy the thinking subject. With it, the postmodern subject suffers the blackly comic ‘death’ it dreadfully anticipates, which is to become an object of technology, to lose the final vestiges of “humanity” which is persistently ironized in postmodern literature. In Snow Crash, the same death of the thinking subject is granted a political resonance, given that it is hackers, counter-cultural figures, who are targeted. In cyberpunk, such death might be understood as a gruesome and thrilling event required of a detective-sci-fi plot, whereby biological and technological life is thought together. When such death happens in Infinite Jest, it is understood as cunning satire on the evils of watching too much television. One reason this difference in reading exists is because of the different ways technology is able to be thought in what is labelled a cyberpunk novel and what is labelled a serious literary novel.

Wallace’s novel encodes an inability to think technology outside of its role in the death of this modern, autonomous, self-aware subject. For Wallace, such subjects are extremely capable in their understanding of postmodern irony. Technology simply obstructs the perpetual and vain struggle to articulate what it means to “be a fucking human being,” to use Wallace’s terms, but must also be accepted as an inescapable condition of the life in the late twentieth-century, else one might be accused of a naïve romanticism. In Infinite Jest, those people in society who still use the very latest technologies are said to be only those “utterly lacking in self-awareness.” This long and serious literary novel takes the central idea of cyberpunk, which wanted to think about technological modes of being in the world,  and address how technology might make a subject feel, and makes it a “serious” endeavour. It does this by limiting the aesthetic possibility of technological modes of being to concerns with whether technology helps one to think. It replaces the possibility of feeling technology with the limiting strategy of thinking it. With this, Infinite Jest reaffirms contemporary personal technology’s status as pathological to the modern subject (Cf. Hal at end of the novel). It is a literary reformation of the cyberpunk aesthetic, one which evacuates it of the spectacular imaginary and reaffirms the human/technology divide through ironic humour and recursive interiority. This is exemplified in the most recognisably cyborg character in the novel, Mario, whose disability is both played for humour and fetishized. Whereas with a figure such as Donna Haraway, the increased female competency in performing with and through personal technologies is the condition for emancipatory ethical and political pleasures, Infinite Jest locates the possibility for ethical valency in the interiority of the thinking male subject, one who is predisposed to mental dissection and recursive critical thought, and for whom the technological reflects not a Luddite threat of automation but the constant horror of their ever-possible object status. Mario’s variety of prosthetics are only positive in the sense that they ameliorate his object status, rather than because they blur the line between subject and machine. The irony that the technological is the very reason which allows the subject to think difference and/or exteriority, is one which is unthinkable in the novel. This is because it is an irony which threatens the position of the Wallacian dis-technological subject; it makes new technological forms the condition for the emergence of genuine sociality.

[1]

[2] Scott Bukatman

[3] Reference for this…

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Reading as Listening/ Modernism and Technological Noisiness

This is a short extract from a chapter that I’m working on, like, right now. But I think it makes a neat thing on its own. It’s me trying to give enough context about modernism and technology before reading Zadie Smith’s NW. But I’m trying to make that context not just a straightforward literary studies manoeuvre. Instead I want it to make sense with a way of reading that is influenced by Levinas’s ethics and Haraway’s idea of reading as a “situated argument” which can be “consonant and cacophonous”:

The central aim of this study is to listen carefully to the noise created by the confluence of digital mediated communication and the novel. In the case of NW, there is a distorting strain which is difficult to shut out, ringing in the reviews, press releases and other writing concerning the novel. This strain is the discursive category of literary modernism. This distortion will be listened to here, in order to better hear the peculiar noise of NW, and thus to more clearly situate the reading performed here. Technologies of modernity like the gramophone, the radio and cinema are said to have had a major influence on approaches to understanding the cultural significance of art, artistic practice and experimentations with form and styles. The perspective on technological forms provided by reading texts in this period is an ambiguous and complex one, as has been re-imagined by many critical works.[1] It is not only that there are contradictory perspectives in literary modernism on the value of contemporary mediating technologies, but that there is a noise surrounding them which is unresolved by the works themselves. The disembodied voice of the gramophone, and the present-but-absent body over the radio, are two forms most regularly linked to ideas of reading, in that they most obviously create a problem for the metaphysics of presence. This study, in wishing to stick with the idea of mediated technologies as an interruptive or excessive force, turns here to Juan A. Suarez’s observation of the position of otherness in these technologies in Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (2007). This is in order to situate this chapter’s work at the confluence of ethics, technology and reading. Suarez states that ““[t]he pulses of quotidian otherness” can be seen in the “kaleidoscopic nature of the urban spectacle and in the cacophony of the media”.[2] In Suarez’s reading of modernism is found a focus on cacophony, a reading which resonates with Haraway’s reading practice, situating itself in reading technology in literary modernism as concerned with “popular ways of doing” which “stimulate our sensorium”.[3] Suarez reads technology through marginality, through one of the literary texts most associated with modernism. It is a kind of reading which augments Haraway and Levinas, helping to add to a cyborg ethics in preparation for reading NW.

Juan A. Suarez’s perspective in provides a useful way of thinking the relation between technological mediation and problem of otherness in meditating technologies as produced by the cultural discourse of modernity. Rather than viewing such mediation as made part of objective states of knowing, Suarez explains that reading modernist texts can show:

that popular practice does not only trade in meanings but also in intangibilities and opaque affect… [that] It is just as important to take into account the way the media and popular ways of doing and seeing move our bodies and stimulate our sensorium.[4]

The sensorium in modernity exists in “an art of users confronted with a new, at times overwhelming, material environment – the second nature of industrial capitalism”[5], which new technologies form a dominant part of. In this focus on the body as the locus of sensibility, Suarez’s reading records an impulse to engage with the lived experience of mediating forms via literary experimentation, in an attempt to understand mediation in a radically empirical, rather than purely aesthetic, sense. Suarez’s reading of The Wasteland refers to the mediation of sound by the concrete, with the sound of the gramophone describing part of the structure of the poem, integral to its vocality. The Wasteland becomes in his reading “essentially a D.J. session that treats the literary tradition as a sound archive to be manipulated by means of gramophone technology.”[6] Within this fertile ground of multiple voices as enabled by the gramophone such distinctions between high and low are viewed as “temporary positions in the cultural feedback loop rather than actual substantive differences”.[7] In this way, Suarez suggests that Eliot’s vanguard literary text troubles a binary of high and low culture when a reading is situated in the technological.

Suarez observes that “Noise, in the cybernetic sense of non-signifying matter, is another name for the otherness that modernism, as an art practice, discovered in the heart of the quotidian.”[8] This is constructed here as a meaninglessness alongside intelligibility, in that “media/ted representation thus reveals an uncanny double of the quotidian […] daily life as a realm that is at once knowable and enigmatic, predictable and contingent.”[9] Suarez confirms that the treatment of mediating technologies by literary modernism can be characterized by an ambiguity which recognizes the process of mediation not only as a site only of either transcendence or as a method for control, but rather as a process which enacts an irreducible difference which is disruptive and difficult to articulate in a comprehensive way. In the sense that mediating technologies are crisis points for literary modernism, situated around the voice and the body, it is because such forms (the phonograph, the camera, cinema) actively highlight the problem of otherness without providing the means of resolving it. The other, in some form, is always present in the moment of mediation, because of the continuous possibility of the breakdown of communication, which is manifest in noise. As Suarez suggests, “telephones and radio relayed personality through disembodied vibration [and] became bearers of human presence”.[10] Listening to this particular reading of modernism helps to make a reading of NW more careful, more subtle. It opens up a guide for reading this novel consonantly with literary modernism, by situating the reading in an awareness of the radical necessity of noise. Suarez’s “quotidian pulse of otherness” in technology is a cyborg image, one that is suggestive of a mode of reading which accepts the fragility of the relation between modernity, modernism and technology in the twenty-first century novel.

 

[1] See: Alex Goody, Technology, Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2011); Marita Sturken, Douglas Thomas, and Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Technological Visions : The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, Pa. ; [Great Britain]: Temple University Press, 2004); Tim Armstrong, Modernism, Technology, and the Body : A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears : Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology : Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[2] Juan Antonio Suárez, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press ; [Chesham : Combined Academic [distributor], 2007). p.7

[3] Ibid. p.12

[4] Ibid. pp.11-12

[5] Ibid. p.5

[6] Ibid.p.7

[7] Ibid. p.3 “The Art of Noise: The Gramophone, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and the Modernist Discourse Network” in Pop Modernism pp.119-140

[8] Suárez, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday. p.8

[9] Ibid. p.9

[10] Ibid. p.120

 

Works Cited

Armstrong, Tim, Modernism, Technology, and the Body : A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Bishop, Ryan, and Phillips, John, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology : Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

Goody, Alex, Technology, Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Polity, 2011).

Sturken, Marita, Thomas, Douglas, and Ball-Rokeach, Sandra, Technological Visions : The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technologies (Philadelphia, Pa. ; [Great Britain]: Temple University Press, 2004).

Suárez, Juan Antonio, Pop Modernism : Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press ; [Chesham : Combined Academic [distributor], 2007).

Tichi, Cecelia, Shifting Gears : Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

List Of Things Am Trying To Say By Typing

1. that the existence of science fiction does not mean that less spectacular narrative forms engage somehow with science-fact or real-technology

a. that because there are not robots on the page does not mean there is not still the ongoing fabulation of the relationship between subjectivity and the peculiar thing called technology

  • that the novel does not provide complete and unbridled access to the “other” which is somehow rationalized into “proper” ethical action.

– that the most important reading acknowledges that it happens in the face of threats to life

i) that writing and/or writings of reading cannot just be read to coherently or totally imagineorexperienceoraccess the other and contribute to lessening your anxiety about the world (basically to calm yourself)

A. that the latter view though is the blanket perspective of a lot of teachers of reading (including me when I was one before)
TT: that narratives about forms of technology always highlight the problems, the trouble, and this is trouble about relations of power and communication, not about technological objects themselves

 

NB that I can see the appeal of this manifesto thing it’s fun

 

/that it is mainly a case of where you choose to locate magic

 

+that yes, okay, Neuromancer was really cool wasn’t it

 

4. that the cyborg is not a cartoon of a posthuman utopia but an image of survival that can be read

 

44. that the notion that “technology diminishes us” ignores how violent writing  “diminishes” people in matters of survival

444. that the works of certain writers “diminish us” more than technology ever has done or will do and that this is all gettingabitchildishsorry

^that an attempt to understand the novel as an ultimate or coherent ethical document is a form of violence, and that any attempts at this kind of understanding should continually show their understanding of this in the interests not of clever priggishness but of demonstrating care

 

=that telling stories about technology is a part of a part of all claims about life, claims which are all predicated on what it is important to care about

 

!!that stories are not benign, neither are they entirely replicable

 

>>that you only see it (whatever) when it’s interrupted-cut-called at-breached-made broke(d), but that *interruption is neither a wake-up-call nor a unique and sudden focus pull into the light but a constant and difficult logic by
which lives happen. you are cutting and interrupting

 

6.that it is not purposefully made difficult but is difficult to give an account of and that giving an account is necessarily to not completely explain

(o)that to get-it is a problem

 

(oo)that the default aim of most pursuits often seems to be to get-it

(ooo) that to get-it generally means in two ways, one to do with communication and one to do with physical violence

 
8. that mediation is form

  1. that in the very DNA of the novel is a desire to privilege mediation, a layering which is either more or less transparent or opaque depending upon what you are reading and (more significantly) how you are reading it.

 

**that just because something appears on a screen that that layer does not somehow supersede the relative opacity of the text**

 

D.) that if you’re worried about interfaces than you’re worried about texts (that none of this is my own work, you understand)

 

Fig. 1 that there are way more important things to worry about than all of that, but that this worry shows itself us as an easy recourse rather than a convincing way of demonstrating care

 

 

12. that it is possible to be in a position of critical responsibility and simultaneously to give a shit

22. that writing is reading is writing is reading is (that [so and so] was onto something and that [so and so] was wrong)

 

\\that when someone declares “you are not a gadget” they understand both you and gadgetry from a total position

 

Sub.3 that Inspector Gadget was inept but part of a network

 

B) that really can’t *just say any of this, don’t want to, but will, breach, continuuuing, and and

Close Reading Digital Mediation: Why Use Levinas? Why Use the Literary Text?

I’ve been thinking more about the problems of disinhibition in Laurie Johnson’s work. See his face/interface paper here, but, long story short, the digital interface can enjoin us in ethical responsibility, because we understand that there’s an Other there. The main challenge to this idea might be to say that mediated communication – or any kind of mediation – automatically creates disinhibition, which results in the diminished sense of responsibility to others.

Johnson accepts that communication online appears to present “freedom” before “responsibility”, and that this can lead to a diminished responsibility, if (and that’s a big if) it is understood that anti-social communication is the result of such diminished responsibility. This is partly predicated, by Johnson, on the notion of anonymity. This, I would suggest, is a less significant concept now, given the fact that online acts are generally constitutive of identity, or at least closer to the material/embodied idea a user might have of their identity, rather than a consciously altered version of it. I would tentatively use the example of IP addresses being used to trace and charge individuals who use hate speech online as a way of demonstrating how the idea of the internet as an unregulated libertarian realm is changing, that anonymity in a basic sense isn’t necessarily an option (very recently in the UK, the CPS updated their guidelines on prosecution of people engaging in abuse/bullying online).

Johnson seems to want to use Levinas as a corrective to this, to demonstrate the potential for the Levinasian ethical encounter in mediation. As I’ve said before, I agree with the nature of this appeal and think Levinas is useful here because it provides a way of thinking responsibility without physical presence – i.e. that my perceived freedom online is still only possible because of the other. The more implicit argument from Johnson is of a Levinasian stripe too; that there’s no reason that such disinhibition should lead to anti-social behaviour – or rather that it is not *simply* the act of its mediation which necessarily explains that anti-social behaviour.

Johnson’s second paper on this specific subject – ‘GUI Faces and “Sticky” Ethics’ – takes on a thorough review of sociological/psychological work on the issue of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)/face-to-face communication (FTF) (am wary of wandering in fields I have very little experience of, although interestingly Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature). Johnson makes a strong claim for the fact that this dichotomy – this digital dualism which leads to deficit-models of mediated communication – is breaking down. He then asks why we might keep using Levinas to talk about this stuff:

For this reason, a contingent phenomenological imperative is still in play as an adjunct to the ethical imperative: there is no single definition of CMC from which a complete ethics of CMC could be constituted, so we retain the need to engage in phenomenological inquiry into the differences between the various forms of CMC, and to investigate each use of CMC anew.

It is useful, along such lines, to cling to something like the Levinasian “face” not just for the sake of distinguishing something like a face within CMC; rather, the Levinasian face is useful for the very reason that it asks us to always ask anew in each act of interlocution what it is that enjoins a user to respond in the manner of a “bringing forth” into language.

So Johnson says that Levinas’s concept of the face is useful in this kind of work, not only because of how it might re-calibrate ideas of responsibility – or the *possibility* of responsibility – but because it suggests that each mediated interaction is a unique act of interlocution which needs to be constantly examined as such.

And I want to say in my research that this contingency Levinas provides us with, as identified by Johnson, the “always asking anew” is what the literary text accommodates. Because not only do new literary works themselves act as an “asking anew” – ideally the novel, predisposed as it is to the conveying the problem of subjectivity – but also the act of reading itself  “asks anew” (this is a huge concept and idea to unpack obviously).

I’m not sure this isn’t just saying “well because literature’s good innit”. But if literature didn’t some significant relation to ethical life, then Levinas probably wouldn’t have said that it was literature which brought him to philosophy, and wouldn’t quote Dostoevsky and reference Shakespeare.

This has got me thinking about what kind of mediated communication appears to be privileged by the novels I’m looking at. It is often private communications, which appear to highlight the complication of public and private identity. In Zadie Smith’s NW , for instance, Keisha’s language in the chat transcript bears the trace of a political resistance, a restatement of the sociolect of associated with her black identity. But it isn’t simply that the mediated communication allows this in some kind of falsely empowering way – Keisha herself is concerned by the fantasy construction of herself as exotic – but rather that it provides a way of acknowledging the problem of it. Perhaps the distinction then between Felix/Nathan and Keisha is that the latter has a chance to resort to forms of textuality which are not conditioned by their immediate social/economic conditions (Nathan and Felix engage in mobile, vulnerable, mediated communication in order to engage in precarious economic transactions). This could be a way of looking more closely at mediated communication in the context of social status – that the process of mediation highlights the problem of social status by apparently providing the potential for it to be temporarily erased.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Connection”

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been working on Zadie Smith, writing a draft of a chapter about the digital interfaces in NW. I’ve come to that classic post-structuralist conclusion of “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that” with regard to the function of digital interfaces in the novel. One critic suggests that such interfaces play with connection and disconnection in the text, but there’s an obvious problem with this reading. It relies on the idea that digital interfaces engender a capacity for “connection” or “disconnection”, rather than something more detailed, more complex, something in-between. To put it another way, saying that a person (or a character in a book) is either connected or disconnected  is reductive of the experience of using such interfaces.

“Connect” comes from the Latin to bind together; the use of the term to imply a physical unity or a form of relationship between two entities is present from the late 19th century. The idea that “connection” describes something that is “meaningful” doesn’t occur until mid-way through the twentieth century, having become part of the language of telephone communication. (NB: I am again painfully aware that I not yet read Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book. Sorry Kev, who first recommended it, like, a year ago. And Avital, obviously.) In contemporary use, the term connect is over-determined. It suggests a meaningful relationship with someone else, but the antonym disconnect can describes a way of switching your attention from a computer to another person in order to give them more of your time. Talking in terms of connect/disconnect establishes a binary opposition, one that reinforces the concept of digital dualism (that the virtual world is distinct, radically different from and subservient to the material world). All that happens when using a digital interface is that we are connected – the concept gives no sense of the process of the interface, or the interface effects which happen while engaging with it. This stuff is hidden by the term “connect”. There is no sense, phenomenological or otherwise, of the detailed interactions which happen when using the interface, because the act which requires the least agency is privileged.

This (dead) metaphorical reference contains within it an ideological structure. If it is understood that it is possible to be in a state of disconnection rather than connection, then this disconnection can be linked to a time prior to ubiquitous digital interfaces. This means that connection can be nostalgically contrasted with a pre-Lapsarian state of disconnection (see Sherry Turkle and her desire for us to all go read Thoreau in a wood) which establishes a moral and political frame for the denigration of contemporary technology. The same can be said for the technophilic desire to think of connection as the ultimate transcendence (see William Gibson’s Neuromancer which is referenced in basically every book on digital technology ever) which then pushes a scientific ethic of progress and development – just as disturbing. (Consider that many instances of literary utopia/dystopia are predicated on visions of total of connection.)

These terms were once used to describe a change in a physical state, and then evolved to describe a change in behaviour. It suggested we acted differently in front of a digital interface – that our experiences were somehow flat, or not inflected by bodies. These changes don’t occur in the same way anymore when it comes to digital interfaces. Cities with ubiquitous digital interfaces and a high percentage of citizens with Internet access experience online discourse as a part of mundane, everyday experience. The notion of connection/disconnection which still remains is a dangerous fiction, one which is often reinscribed by the critique of digital interfaces in art and public life. It negates the power of digital interfaces as a mode of social and political expression, because it suggests that a) using digital interfaces is a flat, standard experiences common to all technical platforms; b) that the experience of digital interfaces is somehow outside of the material realm and is not an experience which relies on, say, access, privilege or class; and c) it undermines the validity of discourse through these interfaces by positing the disconnected state as the privileged mode for serious or “meaningful” discourse.

I’m probably assuming too much about the presence of these terms in criticism, media, popular culture etc but a brief internet search will provide results for a host of articles, positive and negative, referring to the totalizing fictions of connection/disconnection. What none of those articles will make reference to is that the way one uses the interface – whether or not you use Google or DuckDuckGo for that internet search, for instance – is vastly more significant to thinking about the important things, politics and class, than whether or not someone is “connected”.  The concept of connection and disconnection as total states for digital interfaces is part of a language which denies difference and minimizes the potential for radical platforms. You are not merely “connected” or “disconnected” – you are doing all manner of things which involve agency, special understanding, community.

‘All too inhuman?’ Half-formed thoughts on Information and Connection in White Teeth

Trotting my way through Zadie Smith’s works. There are a few things I want to think through about White Teeth, as scaffolding  for my embryonic ideas about the digital and form in NW .[1]

James Wood famously/infamously labelled the novel an example of the “hysterical realism” which he felt characterized the later post-modernism of writers like Pynchon, DeLillo. Wood’s critique is an odd one, which decries the lack of humanity in these works. The challenge that these novels are “full of inhuman stories” has always sat quite strangely with me, with the implication being that “the grammar of storytelling” is somehow a thing which isn’t utterly human. It relies on a kind of normative standard for the idea of the good realist novel, one that must, in his parlance, lead us towards a consciousness. This is an unclear phrase, a kind of humanist jargon that literary critics like to fall back on, and it’s reinforced when Wood asks for a “return to an innocent mimesis”. Quick! Back to the Golden Age of 19__!

Far more perceptive, I think, is his description of these sorts of novels as reliant on information. “Information has become the new character” is a far more useful critical comment than claiming some innocent age where Henry James wrote all that was worth anything. It is this description of character which I think more interesting a way of exploring a novel like White Teeth.

Information appears in many different forms in White Teeth, always conspicuous by the form it takes – whether as encyclopaedia (being bought or sold), or DNA, or religious leaflets or pamphlets, or even as a drug. Samad’s morphine-high is an information overload: “all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire”. Archie says the men are wells of experience “like encyclopedias” (he is violently corrected by the women in novel). The bourgeois-family the Chalfens are most significantly a family who define themselves by knowing more, by having the information that other families don’t. We understand because we’ve read more, we’ve had more access to more information than you. 

I would argue that information isn’t just a formal game, a meaningless web, as Wood suggests of White Teeth. The final setpiece – Marcus Chalfen’s presentation to an audience of the mouse who will help cure cancer – is a climax of human proportions. Sure, it’s mildly unbelievable that a network of such different groups would come together in this way. But all of them are attempting to sort different forms of information, different systems of belief and understanding, in order to fulfill they way of living. Information is something which drives human action in the novel, whether it is a desire for religious understanding or biological advances.

In a century where the very fabric of information has changed, Smith I think understands that information is entirely human – you are defined by what you understand, the kind of data you choose to interact with, what you share with others. In other words, I don’t think the wealth of information, the network, the web of White Teeth, means it moves away from consciousness, or the representation of consciousness, or whatever form of value you want to attach to the ostensibly realist novel. What the novel shows is that a logic of human connection, whatever language it is shrouded in, relies on exchange with each other. And that is what Smith’s work seems to privilege – an exchange, a gifting of human experience from one to the other. And it’s her concern for displaying the experience of the other which guides her formal experimentation, and I think the atmosphere of her works overall.

 

 

[1] (A joyful recommendation, here. Smith’s essay on David Foster Wallace in her  collection Changing My Mind is one of the most perceptive appraisals of the writer I’ve ever come across, mainly because it isn’t hagiographic or vague, and is analytically rigorous without being inaccessible. It doesn’t rely on the uncritical presentation of extracts from stories (there’s lots of “isn’t this stuff just so human” when it comes to Wallace). Smith even challenges the self-help-oh-so-inspiring status of This Is Water (go listen to it rather than buying the ridiculous toilet book that’s been created). Her analysis of the key feature of Wallace, the recursive sentence, is excellent, because it gives substance to the discussion of Wallace as an ethicist, that tautological label “a moral writer”.)

race/ anonymity/ porn – Ethics and the Internet in Zadie Smith’s NW

I’m starting some work on Zadie Smith this summer, specifically her novel NW (2012). It seems to me to be the first attempt by a British author to directly address what it means to use the Internet, or to communicate digitally, and to ask (if only partially) how digital forms lead to a recalibration of ethical boundaries (or an augmenting of the possible acts available to us). This work comes after my draft first chapter, where I was trying to pick a route through digitality, literary ethics, modernism and twenty-first century literature, to set up a critical foundation from which to proceed. It tried to do too much at once – obviously – but the process was useful at least.

Part of what I was attempting to say in that first bit of writing, though, was that it is valuable to think about stuff written in the twenty-first century through the prism of the technological. Looking at texts from the modernist period in this way – Virginia Woolf, Henry James – highlights some important cultural conflicts, political anxieties and ethical concerns. Modernist writers were attempting to transcribe, translate or put into a form the relationship that society had with new mechanical and electrical stuff which created new ways of seeing the world. And there was a politics of expression that went along with that – which meant that a modernist perspective was often coupled with an acceptance that new technologies couldn’t be shunned, but must be understood, seen as an essential part of the cultural fabric, maybe even worshipped. Smith’s novel is one that understands this impulse. The difference in the contemporary period is that the technology, the new thing, is not only mechanical or electronic but the digital.

NW is a novel that testifies to the ubiquitous nature of digital interactions. It confirms the centrality of digital forms to many elements of lived experience. Most simply, mentions of digital forms of communication are littered throughout the book, as might be expected of the realist mode in which Smith tends to write. Characters get out their phones, look at websites, sit at laptops. The ills of technology are drably agreed upon during a dinner party by faceless guests.

Critically, a digital form of communication works as a central plot device, creating perhaps the defining moment of conflict in a novel which is generally more interested in the quotidian or the points when characters notice time passing. The central character, who changes her name from Keisha to Natalie, performs a sexual transgression which is primarily a digital one. In a section knowingly entitled Love in the ruins, she cheats on her husband with two young men in a “50s semi” in Wembley, facilitated by a “listings” website, on which she is known by the handle WildInWembley and her email address is KeishaNW. The freedom Keisha/Natalie finds in this particular form of communication is that of temporarily leaving her role as head of household and “big lady jesus” lawyer. Having changed her name once, the textual avatars she uses online refer back to her previous identity. In one sense, the online space provides a place where Keisha can perform an identity that she feels she can no longer materially embody – she has moved on too far from her family and her upbringing. At the same time, in the “listings” website she is “BF [black female] 18-35” – she becomes a sought after sexual fantasy, a racially-defined fetish for couples and naive young men. “Why?” asks the narrative “What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want?” This, however, is as far as the narrative goes in questioning the racial biases of the “listings” website. Keisha turns up at the house of drug addicts, and then later a moneyed bourgeois couple – on both occasions the sex is cancelled, the first because the couple are too high, and the second because Keisha is not able to, in that moment, satisfactorily separate her status as fetish from her life as Natalie, the professional.

There is more to be said about the extant presentation of digital forms in this novel, not least the fact that Keisha’s use of the website is a) described in flat, quotidian terms (“She went to the website. She went to bed”) which perhaps reflects a complacent, liberal understanding of the Internet as a utopian space. There is also the Chat Roulette used by the men that Keisha engages in sexual activity with, whom she chastises (“Boys, boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here.”)The political dimensions of the digital forms seem essentially flat, impotent. “Look, there is raceanonymity, and porn online” the text seems to say, “isn’t it terrible?”

I’ll finish this piece about my initial ideas with what I think is the most important engagement with digitality in the novel, a chat dialogue between Keisha and Leah which is printed in the text itself. From one perspective, it’s just another epistolary gimmick (Exhibit B being Smith’s On Beauty, where she re-imagines the opening letter of Howards End as an e-mail). But I would argue the effect is more radical than that, that there is evidence that this particular passage says a lot about the different ways of seeing that this particular digital form facilitates and how they are transformed when it is fixed into the pages of a print novel:

shut it blake
That’s just so fucking FASCINATING
Hello hanwell DARLING. What brings you to the internets this
fine afternopn
noon
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
delighteful.

 
This can be viewed as rupturing the form of the novel, because it cancels the normally ever present omniscient-third-person voice, one which is highlighted in ironic asides or philosophical observations. It becomes absence here, where in the rest of the novel it is either explicit or dropped into at certain moments. As such, the computer-mediated-communication, the tangible presence of this particular layout, this peculiar form, emphasises the absence of the controlling, omniscient voice. It becomes an ethical encounter which lacks the mediating presence of the novel. Any mediation or distance between the reader and characters comes in the form of the permanent appearance of a normally permeable (or alterable) textual form – the chat dialogue. It is in the midst of these textual tensions that an important ethical question is raised:

 

[…}
lady jesus I am getting married
!!!!!?????
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests
I’m really happy for you seriously
Actual guests.
Iz for mum really.
right
also, I really love him.
lust him.
Important to him and he wants to.
It’s what people do innit.
sorry clerk one min
enough reasons?

The important ethical question, although one of privilege and bourgeois choice – should I marry this man – is never answered by Keisha, and the reader might choose to assume the veracity of her need to suspend the conversation for work. (Incidentally, both characters are at work, in the kind of jobs which afford them basically unobstructed internet access. I can’t work out what to say about this yet past the fact that internet is not a magical world but another aspect of material living conditions from which you can be alienated/prevented from accessing). Keisha couldn’t answer her phone, so Leah tells her using an instantaneous message. Later, the irony of the speed of the message is emphasized when she complains that the two of them are getting old. A moment of life-changing significance – one which a reader might explain a realist novel to make more of – happens instantly – should-I-get-married is not, “a different kind of moment” as Leah describes the Kierkegaardian “instant” earlier in the novel. The mediated nature of their interaction influences the ways there are of reading their relationship, changes the ethical possibilities available for knowing their relationship. For example, when Keisha asks Leah about having children, her emoji response changes the texture of the exchange:

[…]

Does this mesn
Mean procreation??
FUCK OFF WOMAN
🙂
FUCK OFF WITH YOUR SMILEY FACE

The emoji shifts the mode signification – it’s a familiar element of internet discourse, but it’s unfamiliar when fixed in the pages of a novel. Face, and the presentation of the face as an important element of the way that human beings relate to each other, is foregrounded here, as it is throughout the novel. The smiley face of Keisha is, perhaps, an over-determined signifier. It appears to represent her inarticulacy, and her desire to mask seriousness with humour, yet it also tells us she has an understanding of internet culture and language patterns (she welcomes Leah to “the Internets” earlier in this section). Leah’s reaction is comic, but also neutralizes the seriousness of the question which is then not addressed again – a question which is arguably the ethical dilemma which defines Leah’s character. The smiley alters the ethical terrain of the interaction – and the two characters suppress or change the direction of the conversation. The digital format of this interaction means the effects of it are stark, because the ethical ground on which it happens is unfamiliar.

Much more could be said about this passage, in terms of its poetics, the way that the text-as-novel consciously manipulates the form of the communication (the knowing line breaks, the lack of time stamps, the switching between standard and non-standard English, the asynchronicity of the communication , the presence or absence of a Levinasian version of the face). But I’d best stop, and start reading again.

Ideas That Are Floating Around 1#

Trying to get some of my thoughts, as well as thoughts stolen from influenced by other people, in order (or perhaps more accurately “in a list so that they resemble order”) to make it feel like I’ve made progress:

  • Digitality – the constant use of digital networks devices – is ubiquitous in post-industrial societies. It influences ethics and politics in ways which are novel, challenging, and in many cases, illegible – or we hope it does/we’re told it can.
  • Digitality does different stuff to previous technology, because it works at speeds far greater than previous tech. Although from one perspective, “the digital age” or “the information age” is actually just a sped up version of previous technological ages  – and it’s a fallacy to think that we transition peacefully from one to the other, or that there’s ever a moment where everyone is caught up. (Kind of like the relationship between modernism and post-modernism, perhaps) I don’t think it’s hard, though, to say “look at all this cool new game-changing digital stuff”.
  • This acceleration of reality (cf. Virilio, Crary) means the merging of/coming together/combining of atoms and bits (Jurgenson). We think about life in terms of networks and connectivity now – bits shape our understanding of time (i.e. has the data sent yet, will this connect, this is taking too long because the connection is slow). This doesn’t mean atoms have been or are being replaced, or that we now like purely though information or data, but rather that our material experiences are supplemented by and often augmented by digital interfaces.
  • WARNING this is to say not that the digital is a different world to the ‘real’, a kind of binary or dualistic thinking about digitality (which, in fact, we could say is a form of othering). In fact, the above means to assert that digitality is central to everyday experience, or the quotidien. When we act online, we constitute – or perform  (and I need to read some more Butler) – ourselves in ways which are coherent with actions that are not on the Internet, or not mediated by digital devices and networks.
  • The main result of this coming together – the thing which underlies most of the consequences, conflicts and positive things which happen when loads of interaction is mediated by digitality – is that there is a change in what it means to be present.
  • That is, presence in a digital sense simultaneously becomes absence . This means that our understanding of what it means to be somewhere – and thus to be able to pay attention to or experience that place – has changed, to contain competing elements, or perhaps to the point where there’s an ethical hierarchy of actions which are embodied (i.e. happen in what we might difficulty call ‘real life’) and actions which are digitally mediated. And if digitality is a part of everyday life, it means our everyday understanding has changed too. That is, lived experience AND the way that we make-up for the fact that we can’t see someone has, gradually, become something else entirely.
  • We could go to sociology to help understand this – and a lot of people have done. But I (and others much better than me at arguing) would argue that literary texts, especially since old, proper hard Modernism, has made understanding or transcribing our relationship with technology its own job.
  • The point is, if there’s a change in what it means to be present, this change must have been reflected in literary texts.
  • The most appropriate way to address and think about the ways that digitality is represented in texts is to consider the ethical status of the digital interactions in these texts, because ultimately questions about the role of digitality revolve around ideas about what is meant by acting online, or what kind of ethical weight it holds.
  • Critics must do justice to the ethos of text which makes digital experience central to its image of life but making the understanding of digital experience central to its critique. This means a critical examination of texts which make these sorts of ethical questions about technology central to the way that they work and effect the reader.
  • This does not mean science fiction, however (including Dave bloody Eggers). We used the word everyday, earlier. The idea of transcribing and thinking about digitality must not be made devoid of a political understanding.
  • Writing about technology, even the most critical works, often reinstates a politics which considers the human being as a template drawn from powerful human beings. What digital networks have the capacity to threaten – I think – is established power, in certain forms.
  • The issue is that marginalised or oppressed subjects do not have their experience of digitality effectively written, or rather it is subsumed by a grand dystopian impulse – “oh how terrible this is for all humanity.” (looking at you again, Dave).
  • Related to this is the idea that spectatorship is encouraged by digitality, and that spectatorship is something that means we have no effective action or intervention – merely Oh Dearism. What does it mean to spectate online rather than understanding, intervening or engaging? And is that all that digital forms engender, spectation? And is this spectation really a new thing? And isn’t that all that reading really becomes, especially in literary circles? And aren’t we spectating on the spectator when we read about digitality?
  • Is a wholly digital intervention possible?
  • Who are the writers trying to answer this? Or are they all hiding from the idea that internet experience is vital, now and always.
  • Search engines are an ideological tool. They alter ontologies of knowing. We use them everyday.
  • Online behaviour is detached because of change in presence – does this mean that the mediated self needs to change/alter or that digital interfaces need to change in order to make them quote more human unquote.

/out of steam

Questions Concerning Heidegger and Technology

I’ve been at a conference for the last one and a half days. It was all focused on Heidegger and Technology (there’s a Routledge edition coming out and it was connected to that). It kind of changed my whole perspective on the stuff I’m currently writing and the stuff I’m interested in making my thesis about (at the moment, anyway).

This isn’t really a proper post, but more a way of preparing to write some proper actual academic words (yes, those ones) on Heidegger in the coming days. To that end, here are things that occurred to me/common themes/questions that were either asked explicitly by the papers themselves or came out of thinking about some of the papers:

  • Is it easy to justify Heidegger’s relevance to contemporary discussion around technology and the relation of human society to the technological? Is it just common sense? Or, do we need to feel the influence of Heidegger but extend his thought for a tangibly new technological age?
  • Heidegger died 40 years ago. This is ancient in terms of technological advance and like-yesterday in terms of philosophy.
  • How do we trace Heidegger’s influence today, and do perspectives which oppose or reject Heidegger (or from quite a superficial standpoint) proliferate more than those which thoroughly engage with his work?
  • Is “calculative thinking” still the main component of Gestell (enframement of all life by technology modes of knowing) or are we in a tangibly different technological epoch, one which maintains a slightly different sense of what might be meant by Gestell?
  • If Heidegger says that learning to think is one way of realizing the extent of Gestell  then what form does that thinking take? Is it teachable? And is it possible that there are specific modes of thinking which are able to work outside of, or in contrast to, Gestell?
  • Could the literary text be a way of thinking outside of technological enframement? A form of the “releasement” that Heidegger talks about? A form of austere thinking as put forward by one paper. There were three or four discrete references to literary texts as a way of explicating a particular argument of the speaker or as a way of exemplifying Heidegger’s own claims. You can hear Martha Nussbaum in every philosophical-literary reference.
  • Are we able to effectively politicize the late Heidegger on technology? Or will it naturally end up as a caricature of nostalgia, a conservative politics? Can a radical application of Heidegger’s views on technology be an emancipating thing?
  • Should we in fact just replace what Heidegger conceives as “technology” with  “capital” in the twenty-first century?
  • How does Levinas differ in his conception of the technological compared to Heidegger?
  • Is it possible to establish a clear lineage from Heidegger through to present day thinkers, or does it make more sense to see the influence of Heidegger in multiple different forms and arguments of current technological thinking?

Answers on a long and complex postcard.

On Narrative Ethics

Selves are constituted in, or by, their answerability before others; they acquire meaning only through intersubjective horizons, horizons which surround textual as well as human encounter. 

I’ve been reading Adam Newton’s Narrative Ethics (1995), another important text in modern ethical criticism. I’ve been thinking about this kind of criticism more recently as that which concerns itself explicitly by what it means to read critically . It usually tries to connect literariness to lived experience in some way, and will often have to define what it means by “ethics” in the first place.

Narrative Ethics comes after the Neo-Aristotelian work of critics like Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and attempts to work from a different meta-ethical foundation, one which faces the text, performing ethics through the act of reading, which involves the dual movement of “resisting” as well as “recognizing” the text, without recourse to “the totalizing pretensions of literary theory”.

To carry out his critical act of facing the text, Newton uses a combination of concepts from Levinas, Cavell and Bakhtin to support what we might call his variation on deconstruction. As you might guess, it becomes rather dense with allusion and is littered with the fragments of quite difficult concepts. There are still moments of real clarity, though, and by putting all of the ingredients in the pot, as it were, Newton has at least tried to rethink how we might conceive of the relationship between reading, writing, criticism and ethics. I’m just not sure it’s ultimately different from a deconstructive position.

Newton’s is at pains to separate his perspective from Paul de Man’s suspended ignorance, claiming that de Man’s ultimate skepticism regarding the capacity of language to provide stable meaning doesn’t account for the potential in reading to perform an ethics, accusing him of a kind of “cowardice” which stops “woefully short”. Narrative ethics “faces” a text, because it acts, whereas deconstruction “stares at” it; “[t]he question, in other words, is whether one names a problem, or substitutes for it the undertaking or assuming or enacting of one.”

Newton’s ethics, then, is defined in a truly Levinasian spirit:

[i]n the special, but by no means unusual, sense I intend it […] “ethics” refers to the radicality and uniqueness of the moral situation itself, a binding claim exercised upon the self by a concrete and singular other, whose moral appeal precedes both decision and understanding.

He also – as the title of his book might suggest – has a thing for narrative texts, especially the novel, although there is an excellent analysis of some short stories, including Henry James’ In The Cage. “Narrative situations” are privileged because they:

create an immediacy and force, framing relations of provocation, call, and response that bind narrator and listener, author and character, or reader and text […] prose fiction translates the interactive problematic of ethics into literary forms. Stories, like persons, originate alogically. As ethical performance, in Levinas’ sense, they are concussive: they shock and linger as “traumatisms of astonishment”. [My emphasis]

So if prose fiction “translates” the “interactive problematic”, Newton begins to sound more like Nussbaum than De Man – that literary texts can provide a “laboratory” for ethical encounters. This, perhaps, in spite of his explicit quoting of Levinas, and his desire to posit the critical reading experience as something which begins “alogically”. Certainly  Newton’s perspective is not that we “refine” or “enrich” our ethical understanding through reading the right texts, as Nussbaum says, but that it is through understanding the limitations of narrative, of our difference from the text,* that texts effect their ethical force. Reading – in the “ethical drama it rehearses”:

stages a “command performance,” the legislative power here belonging not to author or to text but to the critical and responsive act. The very act of reading, in other words, like prayer or casual looking, permits things to happen.

Although Newton does state that the “structure of fiction” is “not the structure of the personal encounter”, there is a sense that the critic attempts to walk a tightrope between  different influences, rather than wholly embracing one or the other. This is perhaps summed up by a further attempt to clarify the distinction between literature and persons, between text and face, one which leaves us wondering which camp Newton is really in:

The profoundest meaning of narrative ethics, then, may be just this sheer fact of limit, of separateness, of boundary. It engages us, it places claims upon us, not exactly as life and persons do, but similarly, and with similar ethical consequences.

Although I do think the idea of texts demonstrating limits is important (see Butler in this previous post) the rest feels a bit limp. The “profoundest meaning” of Narrative Ethics is an idea that, in the end, is “not exactly” but “similar to” life. We probably needn’t have read that far to understand that literary texts are “similar to life”. This lack of critical thrust might be down to an ambiguity at the heart of the project, which “hope[d] to invest ethics with the kind of interpretive force exercised by the sharpest of contemporary ideological modes of literary analysis.” This puzzled me initially. Is it that Newton tries to “do” ethics without “doing” ideology? Or by suggesting that ideology doesn’t do ethics correctly? Although the statement does, I think, get at one of the problems of ethical criticism, the sense that it’s almost always too concerned with itself. I keep feeling that ethical critics could be more concerned with saying something that returns the import of the literary text to the world in which it was produced – to do politics rather than talking about it. There is an excellent discussion of the role of blackness in Stephen Crane, for instance, using Levinas’s concept of face as skin. Newton makes insightful and intelligent comment in his readings. It made me wonder – I’m not sure of the import of distinguishing between ideological – or the political – and the ethical. Are critics able to make politically prescient comments about texts that relate to the political and ethical conflicts we recognise as important? Or do we always have to worry about our system of critique over and above that?

When we decide to do ethico-politics is when critics start saying things that matter, that are not just “similar to” but are directly the experience of life and persons. This, to me, is what constitutes the “response” to the textual “call” of alterity that Newton ultimately posits:

ethically poised philosophy probably serves literature best […] when it allows texts first to speak, to tell their whole stories, before it responds. Such a response needs tactfully to mediate between knowledge and silence, between bestowing a critical surplus that literature cannot provide itself and simply registering the fact of literature’s alterity […] an equilibrium of call and response, not blindness and insight.

But there is a difference, of course, between saying and doing.

Reference:

Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 1997

*Newton does admit the similarities to Derrida later in the work. His mode of “[e]thical self-understanding” of texts “begin[s] to look not unlike differance” . He says that this “cannot help surfacing in readings which attempt to correlate Levinasian concepts with a theory of literary interpretation.”