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”.)

“The Nation-state deals in bodies”: Blood Sacrifice, (Digital) Textuality, and memes

I’ve been reading Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technology by Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas. It’s a collection from 2004 which contains a really diverse set of work on technology, politics and society. The piece in it that has really stayed with me, and kept cropping up in my thinking this week, is Carolyn Marvin’s Peaceable Kingdoms and New Information Technologies. Marvin’s main argument is that digital forms of communication don’t have the power to reconfigure borders, or to challenge the basis of institutionalized power, because they are bloodless. Nation-states have always been founded on the sacrifice of blood – war – in order to establish communities. The imagined communities of nationhood, she states, citing Benedict Anderson, need some bond to imagine before they can start imagining, thinking and writing about it. Marvin views the essential catalyst of national community as the letting of blood from the body, the death of citizens in defense of the nation, because it is this which is the foundation of a national bond.

Marvin has written extensively on this concept before (see her and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifice and The Nation) but here the discussion is focused on the relation of digital forms to the nation state.  Marvin focuses on the difference between textuality and embodiment, with the later being constructed as the hallowed face-to-face that is seen as a tangibly different mode of communicating. “At the level of lived existence, social structure is visibly anchored by conventions of proper social distance in face-to-face exchanges between persons of similar or different statuses.” The face is the thing which keeps people together, and also the thing which establishes the “proper” distance of social behaviour. I won’t go into the Face as a theoretical/theological concept here, but certainly it’s at the foundation of Marvin’s argument about nation states – that proximity to blood sacrifice is the embodied situation which makes the imagining of nation-state by the citizen possible:

Nation-states are not simply well-coordinated daydreams of language and information. They are communities of moral obligation whose members’ bodies are committed to mutual common defense
[…]
Where connections are attenuated by distance and mediated through texts – in the sprawling industrialized nations where readers of this essay are likely to live – ties of compelling psychological and social power must be generated in the absence of physically intimate bonds that unite members of face-to-face communities.

That “moral obligation” is manifest in contrasting ways: see the UK in these recent weeks after the EU referendum. Hate crimes are forms of extremely reductive “mutual common defense”, based on a crude moral obligation that is about justifying the sacrifice of the nation: You’re not allowed to share in our sacrifice, because it’s impossible that you spill your blood for the nation – because it’s the wrong blood – so fuck off back to your own national sacrificial altar. In reality, it is refugees and stateless peoples who are the sacrificial fodder upon which nation-states subsist.

The second part of the above quotation is what refutes the power of the digital text, the text which is defined by the distances between those who read it and the mediation of the platforms through which it is experienced. There’s an assumption by Marvin, I think, about the efficacy of texts through their sharing, in that the text which is digital can be shared, but such a mechanism doesn’t automatically come with the presence of the face. The giving of a book, or leaflet, or pamphlet, in-person, comes with the face always there.

For Marvin, digital communities can’t challenge the imagined communities of nation-states, because “digital texts are abstracted from the bodies that produce and receive them […] they are endlessly duplicated and effortlessly distributed.” The body, the site of power for the nation state, is “the real treasure of the community”. “Texts can recall stuff” but don’t have “real bodies to back them, as gold backs currency”. Taking Marvin’s argument further, she seems to suggest there is an effortlessness, a lack of friction, in the digital (we have to ask what the nature of that “abstraction” is). I would suggest this is not a lack of embodiment, because all digital acts are first of all embodied acts, but currently could be seen as a lack of the trace or signifier of embodiment? Which means that digital acts lack the ethical weight of the body? My thinking isn’t clear here. I’m just not sure it’s as easy as saying textual/digital = abstract, body/blood = real, but by this I don’t necessarily mean to refute the idea the nation state deals in bodies.

Toward the end of the essay, Marvin suggests that digital networks, or other forms of textuality, might one day challenge the nation-state, but only when there is a path from abstracted digital texts to the body, one which will be established through violence:

The more citizens are strangers, the more dramatic and compelling – the more violent – must be the rituals that elicit their willingness to sacrifice despite (and frequently in defiance of) family, religion, and other body-based affiliations that compete for moral supremacy and have the capacity to derail or destroy national purpose.

I’m not going to think through the above in detail here, because I’m running out of time and this is already a bit long, but Marvin’s thoughts made me think of a recent piece by Aria Dean. It examines memes and blackness, and was published in a new magazine dealing with the nature of digital forms, Real Life. Discussing the bodiless nature of memes, Dean refers to the artist Hannah Black’s comments about modernity and embodiment:

We use words like modern and contemporary to signal changes in the arrangement of meaning of images. But I wonder if we could put more pressure on these apparent novelties if we could situate the present in this long history of circulating bodies.

This circulation of bodies is linked by Dean to the Middle Passage: “From the Middle Passage onward, we have been in circulation — shipped as goods to the new world, circulated throughout the Americas as labor, circulating ourselves as fugitives.”

Memes, though – perhaps the ultimate digital text – are posited in this piece as engines of movement which create a network which is beyond the state: “[t]he meme moves so quickly and unpredictably as to establish a state(lessness?)”. This boundlessness, this metaphysical rejection of the border, means that “[f]or blackness, the meme could be a way of further figuring an existence that spills over the bounds of the body, a homecoming into our homelessness.” You’ll have to go read the piece, but it seems that some digital forms, such as the meme, are no longer as abstracted from the nature of the body, and bodily sacrifice, as might initially be the case.

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

“Fantasmic Digital Insularity” – Jonathan Crary’s 24/7

While zipping up to Lincoln and back last week for What Happens Now, I’ve been getting in a bit of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (thank Gari). It’s a book that’s been on my “must get round to reading that” list for months. I’m talking mainly about the second chapter here, although there are some general comments about the work as a whole.

Crary’s main thesis is that the concept of 24/7 is the dominant aspect of present-day capitalism, and that this should be central to critical thought about the control structures of the twenty-first century. It’s an emotional and intelligent polemic, given to poetic and arresting claims: “[a]n illuminated 24/7 world” is one “without shadows” – “the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change.”  Crary’s reading is politically-driven and motivated by a desire to emphasize the ideological violence at the heart of a 24/7 world.

The main issues defining contemporary living are contained in the fact that present-day capitalism must ultimately see sleep as an affront to its ideological workings. The 24/7 society is, as it were, always on, and as such temporal boundaries become blurred. It undermines distinctions “between action and repose” creating “a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience “. This reminded me of Paul Virilio, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap here in thinking about his concept of “accelerated reality” or “electronic optics”. Beware, says Crary, it is not the tech devices themselves, but the structures of experience which they permit that contain the substance of control:

The idea of technological change as quasi-autonomous, driven by some process of auto-poesis or self-organization, allows many aspects of contemporary social reality to be accepted as necessary, unalterable circumstances, akin to facts of nature [as well as the] [c]oncealment of the most important techniques invented in the last 150 years: the various systems for the management and control of human beings.

Certainly this kind of critical perspective is important during a period where there is an incessant digitizing throughout post-industrial – or in Bernard Stiegler’s words, quoted by Crary, hyperindustrial – society. He emphasizes that digital products are given a constantly regenerating veneer of novelty, in order to promote a form of “self-administration” which ultimately results in the individual becoming an application for processes and controls. There is a lot to nod along to when reading this appraisal of digital products, although we might want to remove the word “exclusive” from the following:

There is an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. “Products” are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.

This does bring us to one of the problems with Crary’s argumentation. He suggests that one of the central problems with writing about new media is that it puts its focus in the wrong place, on the devices and products themselves, “the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks”. More important for him are questions about “how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception.” This lapse into generality causes some problems later in the chapter, as well as pointing clearly away from the more convincing political reading of technological structures towards something like Heidegger’s essence of technology.

The main issue is that Crary then makes reference to specific concepts of digital experience – internet pornography, online gambling and video gaming – which arguably require a focus on the specific devices of consumption in order to understand the way their “rhythms” have changed. His dismissive tone when discussing how writing on new media goes out of date doesn’t acknowledge the role that thinking about hardware plays in larger questions about technological structures. Crary focuses, after all, on “products” earlier on in the text, and makes explicit references to the current giants of tech Google and Microsoft throughout.

The obvious counter-argument  here is that the “rhythms” and “speeds” of digital consumption cannot be thought separately from the very materiality of the devices that condition such consumption. Crary’s apparent desire for separation turns, then, into a question about form and content, one which he doesn’t satisfactorily address. Perhaps this is part of the bigger picture though, pointing as it does towards a form of difficult liminality, a condition which is related to sleep in the closing chapter of the book.

I would take further issue, though, with the  closing comments at the end of Chapter 2, which seem to shift Crary’s otherwise interesting polemic onto a more tired side of the debate about new technologies. There is, it seems to me, a further difficulty in drawing boundaries. After denigrating the “intellectually spurious” work of technophilic writers such as Esther Dyson, Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly, Crary argues for the kind of anti-technology stance which feels reactionary and unthinking:

Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant. There is an insurmountable asymmetry that degrades any local event or exchange. Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances. It is now a given that a limitless availability of information or images can trump or override any human scale communication or exploration of ideas.

This assertion – for it is an assertion – relies on the same logic of the apparently intellectually spurious authors of technophilic persuasion that Crary dismisses. Any interrogation of the rather cloudy noun phrase “human scale communication” leads down the path to a suspiciously safe liberal-humanism. It also relies on the notion that the relationship between “life” and the “digital” is a dualistic one, a perspective convincingly challenged by contemporary writers on tech (see Nathan Jurgenson here). The above is a totalizing statement about online activity which is reductive of the ways in which social media supplements or influences behaviour, as opposed to replacing it. More critically interesting would be to consider the way that activities which don’t take place online are discussed and represented online. Far from the idea that these activities either do or don’t “have an online correlate” a more nuanced and accurate critical perspective would be to view “online” behaviours as working in combination with “offline” behaviours. The line is blurred. We do not find limitation on the inside of the screen and exploration on the outside. Crary here is actually not far from the technophilic writers he calls the “academic watchdogs”, those which he says police views critical of the technopoly. I don’t disagree that pro-tech writing is often lacking in critical reflection, I just don’t think the way to challenge it is to write polemic which does the same.

Although Crary seems to be one of the most politically-engaged and in many ways clear-sighted writers on the subject, here he throws his lot in with Sherry Turkle et al, those other watchdogs of the human subject. As we find later in the text, being against the problems of twenty-first century capitalism means, apparently, being against the entire concept of digitality, because within digital forms “a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmic digital insularity.” I fear that Crary’s view of the digital spaces we inhabit is too limited, and the arguments here would be improved by some acknowledgement of the possibilities for digital communities to augment and support unity between individuals. The problem for Crary seems to be that the very boundary he makes firm – between “real life” and the world of digital capitalism – is too rigid.

Problems with Digital Liberal-Humanism or Why Jaron Lanier Is Wrong

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, I’m left with the same questions I’ve had when finishing similar books – those slightly pop-culture ones that say “tech bad”. These questions are about ethics: why doesn’t the author fully acknowledge and interrogate the ethical values which serve as the foundation to their arguments about technology? What do they actually mean by the loss of “humanity”?

This is not to say that Lanier doesn’t make some apposite observations about the way that digital technology has developed since the 1980s. The idea of software being ‘locked-in’, fixed in place, and thus shaping the way that human beings behave and relate through digital forms, is an important one to understand, not least because it highlights how certain kinds of information technologies are shaped by capital (it isn’t hard to argue that this is the case for all digital networks – consider the idea of data centres and cloud computing, something which is a footnote for Lanier). In highlighting the idea of software lockdown, he identifies that the ubiquitous software at the heart of personal computing, UNIX,  “doesn’t accommodate the rhythms of the body” because it relies on a command line interface – basically an automatic keyboard input, which on hitting the ‘return’ key will trigger an event. This disconnect between the mechanisms of a software that shapes many of the tools that lubricate modern society and the idea of human embodiment or an everyday understanding of presence in time needs further discussion and investigation. We need to better understand the cultural logic that digitality conveys, and how that is used to alter and shape experience. What is less useful is an essentialist humanism, saying that digitality is a one-dimensional thing, reducing some kind of overarching humanity.

The main problem with Lanier is that he much prefers individuals to groups of people. He sees a “reduction” in what it means to be human, due to a loss of what is mystical about human connection and creativity – that is, a challenge to the sovereignty of the individual. His perspective abstracts us from concrete experiences of digital networks and communication. Groups connected by the internet become mobs or dumb crowds, at the expense of the intellectual individual:

Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviours. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.

In this, we can see what really drives his critique of a computerised-ideology, or what he terms cybernetic totalism, is the perceived challenge to liberal-humanism. Viewing humans in terms of computers, or contemplating the possibility of the Singularity, is a challenge to the modernist project of the powerful sovereign individual. While there are obvious concerns to be recorded about the totalizing potential of an anti-human, cloud-based repository for all information, I feel like the focus on the Singularity is misplaced, and masks a political insecurity. While there are people pushing for a new way of thinking about the human being (call it whatever you want) it means the group of human beings who have had the most power, respect and control – Gutenberg white male individuals – see a threat.

This kind of reading might explain why, for Lanier, groups of people, digital communities, are not as important as cultured, intellectual individuals. Early in the text, he contrasts “pack mentality” with “the phenomenon of individual intelligence”. The digital instances of the former mean that “[t]he deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” – whatever that “deep meaning” might be. The problem with Lanier’s observations is that, while he quite effectively articulates part of the problem of society being shaped, enframed, by technological forces, referring to concrete and useful examples, often he lacks a tangible political engagement with the problems of life as conditioned by digital networks. Take the fact, for instance, that social media networks implicitly sanction violence against  women because mechanisms of reporting and dealing with such violence are not a priority of companies making money. There is not a concern with this kind of inequality for Lanier – he makes some points about advertising as the foundation of digital networks, but goes no further than saying that digital networks are capitalist, and lead to monopolies. Instead, he is more concerned with the “reduced” notion of friendship by a system like Facebook, and the somewhat bland concept of people making meaning. I would gently suggest that meaning hasn’t disappeared; that digital networks, even in forms that work from a commodified version of a social face, can facilitate genuine community power that results in tangible action, creation and collaboration.  In another example, an early section entitled “How Politics Influences Information Technology” has no politics – Lanier actually identifies a moral rather than a political dilemma about the influence of tech engineers on the structures that “change how you conceive of yourself and the world”. 

The closing sentence of the book reveals the Gutenberg ideology that underpins Lanier’s challenge to communities in technological spaces. A deepening of meaning is the most intense potential kind of adventure available to us.” Here, a shift in understanding about the way digital networks shape our society is political only in so far as it grants the sovereign individual a version of liberal-humanist “freedom” – freedom to know, to indulge in an adventure, rather than freedom to acknowledge and challenge inequality.

If someone feels the need to write the statement “[o]nly the people were ever meaningful”, they see abstraction where they should see politics.

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.”

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.