A weak form of respect

Over the last two days I’ve been looking at Jeffrey Karnicky’s Contemporary Fiction and the Ethics of Modern Culture (2007). It’s a work of criticism which has irritated me, but that’s probably more my own fault than Karnicky’s.

First of all, the title promises some kind of engagement with  “modern culture”. But what this really means in this instance is “postmodern literary culture” or “classroom culture”. David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Susan Daitch and Irvine Welsh are all presented as postmodern writers worthy of Karnicky’s ethical criticism, but the choices seem disparate, and indicative of a general (perhaps designed) lack of cohesion surrounding Karnicky’s project here.

The readings themselves are original and compelling, using each text to consider different concepts of reading and writing, meaning that the critical method is not using terms set by the critic, necessarily, but by the text themselves. This demonstrates Karnicky’s commitment to the singularity of the reading experience, something that Derek Attridge rather got to first in his book The Singularity of Literature (2004).

Not to say this isn’t all well and good. We have a range of interesting texts, read in a way which is keenly aware of the boundaries and pitfalls of literary criticism. Karnicky bases his philosophy of reading on a combination of Deleuze, Guttari and Blanchot, creating a kind of collage about how to read ethically, how to defeat the totalizing perspective of literary criticism whilst doing literary criticism.

The main problem I have is that the end result of Karnicky’s philosophy of reading is politically impotent, and actually I think reinscribes an all-powerful literariness, rather than breaking out of the confines of the debates around postmodernism which he rails against. At the start of the work, he sensibly recasts the question around reading:

Rather than endless debate over what should be read, a focus on reading asks what I would call a more important question: How does the practice of reading create actual effects in the world? […] The works of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Maurice Blanchot can point to other ways of formulating the solitary encounter between literature and life that happens with every act of reading.

But the “actual” effects we get to by the end are rather vague and, it seems, supportive of the kind of subjectivity which is being railed against through the use of a thinker like Deleuze. Here’s a flavour of the conclusion, which uses the image of the classroom as a way to articulate the effects of ethical reading:

for me, teaching an ethics of reading involves a seemingly paradoxical double movement: cultivating a space of fascination cut off from the wider world while at the same time arguing that literature, particularly contemporary literature, is relevant to everyday life […] Fiction, in a sense, provides a critical distance from the rest of the world […] [but] must return to the world and must always bring something with it.

Fascination with the literary work is one of the poles which criticism reaches, existing between this and “everyday life”. The use of the term fascination in any critical endeavour – even on focusing on the singularity  of the experience of reading literature – seems to me to be depowering, a removal of agency – literary works are fascinating, and part of being a good reader is be bewitched by the text. If we’ve got the time and inclination to be bewitched, then yeah, sure. But I’m not sure that doesn’t undermine those modes of reading which would address those who are under-represented, marginalized  in the literary academy. The “return to the world” which Karnicky posits as a path for thinking about fiction doesn’t save us from this apparent lack of political understanding:

An ethical reading practice will not necessarily provide a student with a “truth” about the world, but it might encourage students to engage other ways of living, other logics that can be lived by […] An ethical reading practice must strive to make the goalless space of literature relevant to a wider world […] reading without a goal of saying what a text means is a key component of an ethics of reading.

The pale “encouragement” of students to “engage other ways of living”, “other logics”, feels to me like a very weak version of respect for alterity. We are to be fascinated by the literary work, and then make the “goalless” space of literature relevant. There is no firm acknowledgement that even if literature is goalless, it is still an integral part of living life – and that the latter is surely not goalless, but politically prescient. To be fascinated by one’s own life is perhaps a motto for the liberal-humanist subject. It all feels like it stops short of anything significant – but perhaps I’m betraying my recent reading of Levinas here.

While, as Karnicky admits, “the inability to construct a basic model or to make a general claim about how an ethics of reading works can be considered a key component of an ethics of reading”, it seems that his books demonstrates how we cannot escape the need to establish a model, or at least resort to some grounding, universalizing metaphors, when describing our methods of reading and their effects. What is interesting here is the actual criticism borne out by Karnicky’s approach is good work, but the framework surrounding it feels collaged, smoothed over, so that the only appearance of the “wider world” is through “other logics”, glanced at but not addressed.

 

 

Reading to understand limits – on Dorothy J. Hale

I’m starting to plan my first chapter – equal parts scary and exciting, like a roller coaster, or eating a live crab. This means I have to work out how my reading(s) of Levinas fits with my way of approaching novels – or, at least, the I think one can productively and usefully read and critique twenty-first century American fiction, works that attempt to make sense of the digital condition of language.

Technology is the main *thing* I’m interested in in contemporary fiction, but before I get to that, it’s important to consider the status of literary criticism as a discipline. If I want to use Levinas to inform a reading of texts, then I need to engage critically and actively with the recent history of ethical criticism (for a brief primer about this, see the text from my talk from earlier on this year, or, you know, someone much more experienced.)

To this end, I’ve recently read Dorothy J Hale’s consummate paper Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel. Hale writes regarding the nature of current ethical criticism, and the different ways that critics attempt to posit the idea that literature has some form of ethical value. She makes clear that this isn’t only about deciding what ethics is, but about deciding what the nature of literature is:

For many post-structuralist literary critics, the return to ethics is not just the attempt to recuperate the agency of the individual reader or author for positive political action but also an attempt to theorize for our contemporary moment the positive social value of literature and literary study.

What one means by “ethics” in this context rather depends on who you’re talking to. If you were talking to me, I’d suggest that literature helps us to understand ethics in a Levinasian sense. That is, Literature doesn’t provide us with moral rules or codes, and, indeed, might not even get anywhere near a representation of an ideal, or a good life. It’s not about learning directly from literature about how to act morally – that’s not really how we read, understand and talk about books. What I mean by a Levinasian sense here, is that literary works can calibrate our awareness of the other – they can challenge or question our understanding of ourselves, and remind us of the presence of the Other. (The problem with this, I think, is that in order to understand this challenge, we often have to resort to a literary critical language, or at least have a sense of the methods we use in reading a literary work – that’s where literary criticism comes in.)

Hale put me in mind of Levinas a lot while I was reading her articles, but she explicitly separates herself from critics like Newton who use Levinas to inform a theory of narrative ethics. In this piece, Hale outlines what ethics means for a number of writers, as well as for ethical critics of the novel – Eliot, Dickens and Trilling sit alongside Nussbaum, Harper and Spivak – but ultimately sees similarities in each ethical approach , to do with the centrality of the novel (as opposed to, say, poetry) and “agreement about the novel’s function as an agent of the reader’s ethical education”. Hale suggests that ethical critics working today are concerned with the reader as a “self-binding” figure – that is, a reader who is able to embrace and respect the alterity of the text through their commitment to limiting their powers of reading, remaining aware both as their place as judge (i.e. able to create the text) and of their limitations as a reader in being able to make ethical judgments about a text.

Through detailed reference to the arguments of Judith Butler (specifically Butler’s reading of Henry James’ Washington Square), Hale identifies the common concept of ethical criticism as centred around understanding the limitations of reading. That, if we read, we experience what it is like to have limited ethical powers, to be put into a position of not having the clarity of a moral code or set of ethical values. She articulates this as the peculiar power of the novel, that,  “[t]he novel is produced as the most independent, the most elastic, the most prodigious of literary forms precisely because it does not solve in advance the problem of its own regulation.” She sums up her perspective on 21st century ethics thus:

what distinguishes this new theory of ethical choice from an older theory of the autonomous liberal subject is the self-consciously unverifiable status of the alterity that the ethical subject seeks to produce—an unverifiability that retains the post-structuralist’s skepticism about knowledge as a tool of hegemony while bestowing upon epistemological uncertainty a positive ethical content.

There are questions about what we mean by an ethical subject – and whether those ethical subjects are also literary critics – but certainly here there is a sense that reading informs an ethics that is defined by limits, by self-abnegation, rather than a self positing a right or wrong.

References:
Dorothy J. Hale, ‘Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel’, NARRATIVE, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 2007)

“in flesh and bone”

I’ve been reading Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. It was published in 1974 and is seen as the main text in the development of Levinas’s philosophy.

It’s a very different thing from his earlier work, Totality and Infinity. I’m not going to jump into a big exegesis of terms and arguments, because it’s Monday. What I’m going to do is discuss just one quotation that came out of my reading today, because the thought it gives rise to is politically prescient.

Here’s the extract. It’s defining the idea of proximity. This doesn’t mean spatial proximity, but rather, it labels a kind of affective or existential proximity. Put another way, it describes your primordial relation to the other, the other person, another human being, to whom Levinas says we have an ultimate responsibility. Levinas uses “humanity” as a synonym for proximity, which might help to clarify that it’s not really to do with space, or degrees of closeness, but in fact amounts to a way of talking about something that is foundational to the way we structure our relations with people. Proximity means respecting the importance of the other before anything else. This is not because you have reasoned your way to a position of caring about the other, or because it might be good for some other ethical reasons, but because it is the defining element of our sensibility:

The proximity of beings of flesh and blood is not their presence “in flesh and bone”, is not the face that they take form for a look, present an exterior, quiddities, forms, give images, which the eye absorbs […] Nor are material beings reducible to the resistance they oppose to the effort they solicit. Their relationship with a mouth is not an adventure of knowledge or of action. Subjectivity of flesh and blood in matter – the signifyingness of sensibility, the-one-for-the-other itself – is the preoriginal signifyingness that gives sense, because it gives. 

The first thing to understand is that Levinas is writing against philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, who in phenomenology were focused heavily on vision as the mode through which the self understood phenomena (Levinas instead says that “saying” is far more important). Levinas, though, is much more interested in the phenomenon of the other. The other is not just a self we think  of as like us (i.e. another self on the same level), or a self for whom we feel responsibility for through empathy – because, hey, if they’re a bit like me, then I can totally imagine what it’s like to be them. For Levinas, the other is an entity with which with have an asymmetrical relationship. This means the other is, in a metaphorical sense, bigger than us (he does actually use the metaphor of height). We have a responsibility to them. We must, as a primordial or preoriginary state, give to them. Levinas repeatedly emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this idea through the image of removing bread from one’s own mouth to feed the other (which partly explains the reference to the mouth above).

Put another way, our relation with another person, the person different to us, is not based on knowledge about that person or actions to do with that person. We don’t have to see their faces, their “flesh and bone”, to have the sense that we must act with an innate hospitality towards them.

This hospitality, this “alienation” of the self by the other, is described as follows:

[b]eing torn from oneself for another in giving to the other the bread from one’s mouth is being able to give up one’s soul for another.

The phrase Levinas uses to complete this reversal of subjectivity is the-one-for-the-other. To start from the self as the progenitor of all being is to create a false foundation for a code of ethics, a way of life, one that can only ever subordinate itself to the will of selves. In the very title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, we can see Levinas’s appeal against this conception of the self as having an isolated essence or experiencing Being. We should understand being otherwise; there is a better humanity beyond my own essence.

I’m still thinking about how Levinas’s inversion of the traditional ontological construction of subjectivity might inform a politics. But here’s a short idea. A way of being in the world based in a preoriginary hospitality, a being which gives, which respects automatically the alterity of the other as an essential component of any humanity, is more ethically coherent than one which assumes solely the sovereign self as a mode of constituting being.This is because the former installs an ethical component before anything else – before cognition, before any idea of politics as we know it from day to day. And  if that component is there -if we follow that modality of being which is taking the bread from one’s own mouth, rather than doing the inverse which is violence – we are less likely to cause the destruction of others in the face of your cosmically dangerous selfhood.

Comprehending Reality: the Paris Conference of Don DeLillo, ‘Fiction Rescues History’

“How do you know it’s me?” deadpanned the author when asked during a Q&A what his motivations for coming to Paris were. Part of his reason for attending was the coming launch of his new novel, Zero K. DeLillo certainly didn’t miss a chance to discuss the new novel, and who could blame him; his extremely captive audience were all going to go and get his new book, and write new papers and chapters about it. This was part-conference, part-convention, part-mini literary festival.

 

He followed up the gag with an admission that the whole experience was extremely gratifying for him, as we might expect, but at no point did the author seem arrogant or aloof. The conference was excellent (in my limited experience, I’ve not known such a consistently high standard of presentations) but, especially when Delillo was in the building, there was a tangible awareness of the gap between the language of the writer and the language of academics. What were we doing asking questions of the academics, when the author was right there? Why don’t we just ask him? The two identities of literary critics were right there in front of us – the knowledgeable writer of arguments about the meanings of literary texts and the geek who loves what the writer has done, how they have changed their lives. It was as though the debates about a post-theory critical atmosphere, ethical criticism and affective reading were being practically tested in front of us. You’re here because you write professionally about these works, but you’re also here because you love the words this guy writes.

 

And I think there’s something valuable in this. Although there were points when the writer seemed rather swamped by the attention given to him by so many prominent academics, it was also refreshing to see said academics acting just like any other fan would – queuing up to get their books signed, showing that the effect of this author’s work was not one that only manifested in scholarly work. Indeed, it showed more than ever that scholarly work stems from utter enthusiasm. It also can’t have done any harm to the perspective of established DeLillo scholars to see the bubble of the academic conference pre-emptively burst in this way, connecting, sometimes literally through a dialogue with the author, work in the academy to the reality of the text outside in the rest of society (the conference was open to members of the public – although I’m yet to find out what the proportion of academic/public attendees was).

 

The sheer range of material and methods of reading covered over the three days was impressive, from the poetics of nuclear bombs to Delillo’s language as analogous to pure mathematics. The first keynote, delivered with charm, wit and care by Michael Naas, focused on the notion of contraband – or rather, modes of stylistic contraband – in DeLillo’s work. The identification of a DeLillian idiolect was well-received, with Naas listing those turns of phrase that typify DeLillo’s style: the “linguistic shrapnel” of names, the lists, the “Whatever that means” after apparently opaque fragments of sentences.


There was a noticeable focus on the later fiction, call it either post-millennial or post-9/11 (or even post 1997’s Underworld), but the organisers had obviously understood the need to cover a wide-range of works; well-structured papers examining earlier novels like Ratner’s Star or Mao II gave some important insights into the place of these novels in the orbiting mass of DeLillo’s ideas. The final day was made up of papers and discussion concerning Falling Man (2007), with another excellent keynote, this time from Professor Peter Boxall, focusing on the use of tautology in DeLillo’s late style. Tautology in DeLillo, Boxall suggested, worked along a different logic to how analytical philosophy might understand it – that the “collapsing of language” in a tautological structure demonstrated a “growing ahistoricism”, a way of addressing the “diminished historical conditions of the new millennium”. Later, there was a Q&A for Sorbonne students studying the text, which included a reading from the author. The sense of reverence was palpable for a figure whose commitment to writing the counter-narrative to terrorism has such resonance in the recent past of Paris. One of the most revealing moments of came when DeLillo discussed the role of 9/11 in his life and his work: “In some ways” he said, “ [9/11] defined the rest of my life up until this point.” It might  be said that it partly defined the conference, with the terms “organic shrapnel” and “late style” recurring like leitmotif throughout the three days.

 

When asked the last question, about why he came to the conference, DeLillo – in his own words, the “kid from the Bronx” – was self-deprecating, extremely grateful. “I’m not sure it’s real” he said. It was a fitting phrase for the central concern of the conference itself, an event for academics, but also for those whose lives Don DeLillo has changed; an event which examined the way his works attempt to comprehend reality, how we put together the day-to-day with the idea of history. Whatever that means.

 

For information regarding the conference, please visit: http://delilloparisconf.byethost12.com/

 

Reading with Levinas #3: The Face – and the Literary Work

Today I’ve been reading Jill Robbins on Levinas and literature in her work “Altered Reading” (1999). It’s helping me to think through the way Levinasian philosophy links to literary criticism, and focuses in part on a concept which I’m going to briefly outline here, one that is central to Levinas’s philosophy: the face.

For Levinas, the face is what “calls to us”. Its an ethical event, an epiphany, which shapes anything beyond ourselves (it is central to Levinas’s idea of transcendence). The face – a nudity, a thing that doesn’t signify in the same way a sign does – establishes the first point of humanity, our responsibility for the other. The description of this might be called preontological. It just happens. If infinity is exterior to totality, then, in Levinas’s word “this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face.”

This takes us back to the concept of infinity, and the face is the site of this infinity, this exteriority – infinity because it is not within the bounds of a dialectic or an opposition (the other is not merely the other because of its difference from the same). The face is where we find the foundational ethical impulse – the one that says we should not murder:

This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: “you shall not commit murder.”

Robbins describes the face as the ultimate “disturbance”, a “shaking up of the mundane”, “an active surplus over the plastic image that would enclose it”. It is not just a form, but something that is constantly “overflowing”. As such, we cannot ignore it – it is already and essentially there, and thus we have a responsibility to it. “[B]ecause of presence before the face of the Other,” Levinas states, clarifying the relation between the self and Other “man does not permit himself to be deceived by his glorious triumph as a living being”. That is, we are not left merely to the “enjoyment” of our own selves, our own consumption of things; our urges for “possession” and “power” are essentially and necessarily brought into question by the presence of the other in the face.

Levinas constantly redescribes and restates a lot of his ideas, and the notion of the face is no different. There are problems with whether this just refers to a physical face in reality, or whether this is a metaphor for a form of vulnerability Levinas is trying to get at. One point of interesting clarification we are given is about the face being necessarily “alive”. The face of the person who is dead becomes a form, an image, a mask, lacking the epiphanic quality of the alive face:

In this epiphany the face is not resplendent as a form clothing a content, as an image, but as the nudity of the principle, behind which there is nothing further. The dead face becomes a form, a mortuary mask; it is shown instead of letting see – but precisely thus no longer appears as a face.

To continue questioning what Levinas really means by face, we can return to Robbins. Robbins raises the question about whether the face is actually made a metaphorical concept at points in Levinas’s work, referencing Totality and Infinity:

But what is Levinas’s reader to make of the obvious metaphoricity of “The face is a hand, an open hand,” or, “The whole body – a hand or a curve of the shoulder – can express as a face” (TI, 212), which even suggest a transfer between synecdochic figures for the human?

This is part of Robbins’s larger line of questioning around whether the rhetorical figure (i.e. that which we find in the literary text) can be a face. Is our encounter with a literary work like that of our encounter with the other? Is the literary work a ‘face’ in a Levinasian sense? Ultimately, she suggests that applying Levinasian philosophy to literary texts directly is not the way to go, because Levinas’s discussion of literature doesn’t really allow it:

There is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism. This means that an extrinsic approach to the topic will lead nowhere, for it is not a matter in any case of applying Levinas’s philosophy to the interpretation of literary texts.

The “incommensurability” comes mainly from the fact that Levinas takes a rather Platonic view of the literary text – saying it’s rhetorical, and thus deceptive, and not indicative of the other. This is in spite of the fact that an engagement with literary texts as demonstrative or descriptive of ethical concepts is spread throughout his work.

If the literary text doesn’t quite fit with the “originary level” of Levinasian thought, then, it surely must fit at some level. The literary text has always been cited as a source of alterity, of access to otherness – it’s a form of exteriority, of seeing things other. I don’t fully accept Robbins’s declaration that we can’t apply Levinasian philosophy to a literary text, although I do agree that it’s certainly not straightforward, and that Levinas’s relationship with literature is ambiguous at best.

When we talk about terms such as “responsibility”, “gift”, “alterity”, they are all terms which are readily applied to the literary work anyway. Furthermore, the works that we call literary are those which are most other – they are challenging, make us question our conception of the self, provoke us to consider our responsibilities. And they do this, perhaps not in an automatic way, such as the face, but they do so through the mediation of the reading process. This undeveloped perspective may well be doing violence to the complex metaphysics of Levinas’s relation between the same and the other, but there has to be some way of accounting for the literary work within a Levinasian ethical framework. Otherwise, how do we understand the fact that Levinas himself was led to philosophy by his encounters with Dostoevsky? That the Russian writer was his “preparation for philosophy”?

 

Work Cited:

Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)

Jill Robbins – Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: CUP, 1999)

Reading with Levinas #2 – Freedom, Infinity and the problem of Literature

Today, I’m going to briefly expand on how the concepts of sameness and otherness are seen as structuring larger theoretical concepts in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, namely the narrowness of totality and the transcendental possibility of infinity. (Yes, they’re in the title, so they’re quite important.)

If the relation of the Same to the Other is an essential component of human life, we might begin to ask what this does to the thing we call society. Although Levinas doesn’t get particularly concrete, there is a political flavour to the theoretical context in which he places the relation between the Same and the Other, and this is to do with the way we either close down or open up our conception of what we know and how we know it.

For Levinas, to be the same, to be just a subject, attempting to subsume everything into one system which is familiar and can be understood in comfort, is like being an oppressive force. To forcibly make someone into the same is to deny their alterity or otherness – it is to turn them into something that is both knowable and, at the same time, easily subjugated. This is the creation of a totality, that is, the asserting of a totalizing concept which confirms the sameness of the system around us. Ultimately, this leads us to think we are free, or at least that we might have a form of freedom. This freedom, however, is conditioned by a totalizing system  – “the State” is what Levinas usually refers to – and it means we have a restricted, limited perspective on what it means to live, and therefore on what we might think of as the “good”:

Freedom, be it that of war, can be manifested only outside totality, but this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face. To think of freedom as within totality is to reduce freedom to the status of an indetermination in being, and forthwith to integrate it into a totality by closing the totality over the “holes” of indetermination – and seeking with psychology the laws of a free being!*

*Levinas is a fan of the snarky exclamation mark.

That’s where infinity comes in. Outside of totality, there is the possibility of infinity, and we become aware of it through the face of the Other.

The Other is important here, because their experience, their very existence, is exterior to ours, and as such their intentions and understanding are beyond us, because beyond ourselves. The very fact that these experiences exist, and are present in the form of the Other, gives us access to something commensurate with infinity. In Levinas’s words, the situation where “totality breaks up” is “the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the Other. The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity.”

But what is this idea of “infinity” like? If the person’s face opposite me provides access to something like a more genuine freedom, an obstructed understanding about what it means to be good, then can we describe this experience? Levinas turns to the metaphors of the teacher, or the Master, as a way of helping to articulate this kind of relation:

Commerce with the alterity of infinity does not offend like an opinion; it does not limit a mind in a way inadmissible to a philosopher. Limitation is produced only within a totality, whereas the relation with the Other breaks the ceiling of the totality […] teaching is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality.

Whether or not this idea can lead us to a sort of ethical epiphany is questionable. The main problem is the notion of getting outside of a totalizing system, or even of engaging with the alterity of the other – interacting with infinity – without turning them into something like same, making them part of a totalizing system.

I think this is something like what we do with literary texts – certainly it’s not hard to view literary texts as a site of infinity, as a kind of ultimate possibility, which is freeing, rather than limiting or restricting. This infinity is something I think we appeal to all the time, especially when we’re defining the literary. We get most anxious about what we are choose to call Literature when it begins to display the features of familiarity, or predictability, of sameness. It is when literature begins to fall into a genre category all of its own – of litfic, perhaps – that it begins to lose this quality of the infinite, to the kind of possibility of exteriority which makes it valuable.

This is essentially the reason I’m studying contemporary fiction, because I see current novels as teaching us an image of the human being which is essentially infinite, based on explicating otherness, rather than sameness.

 

 

Krapp’s Last Facebook Memories

Are we okay with Facebook Memories now? I came across a way of thinking about them while reading Alex Goody’s excellent Technology, Literature and Culture. She reads Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape using ideas around cyborgs and the technologized body, influenced by Donna Haraway. She discusses the role that the tapes play in Krapp’s attempt to coherently understand himself. Krapp, the sole actor, is a man of 69 who listens to tapes of himself speaking, giving accounts, from the previous years of his life. The entire play is a form of monologue, shared between the physical Krapp on stage and the various disembodied technologized versions of him we hear through the tapes. Discussing the effect of this dramatic device on notions of identity in Beckett’s text, Goody writes:

what it seems to offer is the possibility of transcending the mutability of the physical self by fixing a material embodiment of the self which can be infinitely retrieved. The machine seems to offer Krapp the chance of extending himself through technology […] the same memories, preoccupations, hopes and anxieties endlessly repeating themselves.

It’s this notion of infinite retrieval which made me think of Facebook Memories. It occurs to me that, in the future, we might receive a notification which is a memory of a memory – something we reshared last year will become something to remember in the next. This raises questions about how this archival revenant, a daily visit from the goon squad, influences our understanding of subjectivity – and might even alter what we think of as a memory. Is the effect of an archive of the self in fact to emphasize in an everyday mechanism that we can’t think of ourselves as a continuous subject? It points at the patchwork lives and narratives which you’ve chronicled thus far without any kind of lens or bias – because it was you who put it there before. Looking at a memory on Facebook instantly recreates a kind of physical echo, because you’re there, looking at Facebook. Goody articulates for us:

Technology which allows us to archive physical versions of ourselves, which can be reactivated at any future point, forces us to ask questions about the materiality or not of our consciousness and the status of our identity in time and space.

So how should we ask these questions, and what kind of answer might we get near? For Krapp, at least, Goody sees these technologized selves as serving to highlight the difficulty of grasping one’s own identity, or put another way, of the impossibility of gaining a perspective on the present self:

[Krapp’s selves] multiply in the technological prostheses that outlive him. The tragedy of the play is that these selves are fundamentally non-coincident so that, even as technological subject, the individual can never be present to himself.

Facebook memories provides a version of this concept, I think. In one respect, it’s a twee social media gimmick, an archive which is designed to package nostalgia, to the extent that you can do your own form of digital  curation-cum-repression (“Didn’t like that ‘memory’? We can make it go away for you.”) But perhaps it’s more effectively seen as a version of Krapp’s tapes, an observing of a technological self. It can remind us to ask questions about how we understand ourselves from year to year, not in a the form of some plastic nostalgia, but by reminding us that we’re not really one fixed person, but part of a number of different non-coincident narratives. The bigger tragedy is a life – the previous stuff that someone who was a bit like us was part of – forgotten, repressed, not remembered even by the self. Rather examine, reconsider and remake the disembodied, technological selves into another narrative, accepting both the loss and the gain of viewing the past.

 

References:

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

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.

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.