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.

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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.

 

 

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

Last week, I finally finished Emmanuel Levinas’s first significant work Totality and Infinity (1961). I’m trying to work out how to use Levinasian philosophy to read contemporary texts, how the issues and concepts addressed in his writing can shape and inform how I examine contemporary American novels.

Totality and Infinity is a kind of rhetorical, ethical appeal. It is highly repetitive, with central concepts and ideas constantly recurring, like leitmotif, slightly varied, reasserted in different ways. This makes it pretty difficult to pin down the priorities of Levinas’s arguments – there’s just so much he refers to, uses and reuses.

In order to help me make sense of some of the central elements, I’m going to try and do some basic glossing of what the concepts are and how they are referred to. Doing this will also help me to think through how I might use some of these ideas as tools for critique.

Ethics as First Philosophy – The Same and The Other in Totality and Infinity

I’ll start with the relationship between what we might (for now) call the same and the Other. The same is what already know, what we might call our personal experience, that which we comfortably understand and have assimilated into our own perspective. The Other is the exterior person, that which is not same, and thus can challenge my sameness, my fixed perspective. Levinas says that this relation, the one between the subject and the person who is exterior, is the most essential element of experience – “the relationship between the same and the other…is the ultimate fact”.

Before anything else, we must understand ourselves as constituted not by our isolated individual experiences but by our commitment to and responsibility for the Other. This is “ethics as first philosophy”, or “ethics as optics”. It is a new vision of the human being which challenges traditional ontologies of the self and Being following Heidegger and Husserl. Levinas states:

it is a “vision” without image, bereft of the synoptic and totalizing objectifying virtues of vision, a relation or an intentionality or a wholly different type


This vision is not merely a call to maintain awareness of other people, but rather an appeal to recalibrate our ideas about how we are constituted in the world. That is, our Being cannot be seen as simply of and for ourselves, but instead must be understood as being-for-the-Other. The Other is essential to existence; we are not solely egoist entities but social beings. It is this relation, the acknowledgement of the presence of the Other, which Levinas labels as “ethics”:

A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.

The Other cannot be made the same, without destroying the very thing which makes them Other. They are “irreducible”, because they call into question the I. This is the most basic relation of human beings, and thus it is the foundation of ethics. It is important to note that Levinas doesn’t set out any kind of rules for how to live, and rather than providing any kind of moral code, seems to give an ultimate meta-ethical document – an ethics about ethics.

 

Literary Criticism – Literary Text as Other?

There is obviously lots more to say about the above, and many more concepts to bring into the discussion, but I’d like to move in to thinking about the dialogue here between this kind of Philosophy and Literary criticism.

I think this kind of relation – understanding the Other as integral – provides interesting ways of thinking about literary texts. Can texts be viewed as Other, in that their value stems from the way they “call into question” fixed understanding? And might the literary critic shape their critique (their representation of the value of this Other) not by fixing what they say in place by their authority as interpreter – by making it the same – but by responding to its particular messages, those which are relevant to the human being as social being, its status as Other?

These are the sort of questions I’m thinking about, and I’ll continue to address them both below the line and in future posts about how Levinasian philosophy influences contemporary literary criticism.

Ethical Criticism, Contemporary Fiction and Digital Communication

This is the text of a short talk I gave at Critical Studies Research Group Work In-Progress session on 26th January 2016.

The central question of my work currently is “to what extent can reading contemporary fiction help us to understand ethical questions surrounding the human being and technology?”.  It is a question which is concerned with the ethics of digital interaction and the technological object as represented in contemporary fiction, focused on a corpus of American writers, working between 2007 and 2014. Jenni Egan, Joshua Ferris, William Gibson, Dave Eggers, Tao Lin and Ben Lerner.

What I intend to do today is give a brief outline of the concept of ethical criticism, with a focus on the approach of moral philosopher/ethical critic Martha Nussbaum. Then explain some of the challenges to this approach from literary and cultural critic Robert Eaglestone. This will make reference to the thought of Emmaneul Levinas. At which point I’ll address how my project looks to develop an ethical critical approach, in order to examine the ethics of technology in contemporary American fiction.

Put very basically, ethical criticism is a form of reading which assumes a text – more often than not, a narrative, literary text – can help us to understand what it means to be a human being, and that this should be the focus of how we responsibly read as critics. We can access this understanding through carefully close reading the surface of the text, as opposed to seeing the most significant or important elements of the text as hidden or beneath the surface . An ethical critic does not treat the text as a “suspicious” object, but as something which is “open”, or an example of “alterity” with which to be engaged. A text, has a message that should be “done justice to” by the critic. It’s a perspective which has undergone a resurgence in last thirty years or so, and can be seen as a reaction to a perceived lack of ethical responsibility in the approaches of critical theory. This has seen the practice of different forms of criticism labelled “ethical”, for instance, humanist, deconstructive, or most recently narrative ethics.

This is referred to as ”turn to ethics” in literary criticism can be clearly seen today in the numerous critics calling themselves ethical or referring to the ethics of an author or text. It’s present too at undergraduate level: a 2013 undergraduate research seminar at University of California, Berkeley, focused on the debate between what it referred to as “suspicious” and “surface” reading, the latter being described as a reading practice that is willing to look at rather than through surfaces. The description quotes Rita Felski, Professor of English at University of Virginia, who has written at length about the practice of reading in the academy, that the job of the literary critic is to “respect rather than reject what is in plain view,”

I will give here the full quotation from Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008), to help frame the contemporary ethical critic’s project overall:

…We are called on to honor our implication and involvement in the words we read, rather than serving as shame-faced bystanders to our own aesthetic response. Here my argument links up with a recent ethical turn in literary studies, an exhortation to look at, rather than through, the literary work, to attend to the act of saying rather than only the substance of what is said. [that’s a reference to Levinas, which we’ll get to later]. The act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right, rather than being a displacement of something more essential that is taking place elsewhere […]the discourse of [literary] value is neither intrinsic to the object nor forged single-handedly by the subject, but arises out of a complex interplay between institutional structures, interpretive communities, and the idiosyncrasies of individual taste.

 

Ethical criticism intersects with philosophy of ethics, and I’ll here give a brief sense of the philosophical element of this, before moving on to Nussbaum, Eaglestone and Levinas. We begin with Bernard William’s invocation of the Socrates question “how should I live?” as the basis for any ethical inquiry, in his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, published in 1985. Whatever version of ethical criticism we are talking about, this question, is somewhere near the centre of its purposes, in some form.

Both Williams and Alisdair MacIntyre contend that our understanding of what it means to be a human being, to live ethically, adhering to a relevant moral code, is conditioned by what is now an outdated moral language – that the complexity of contemporary society is not adequately accommodated by the moral language relied on by the tradition of moral philosophy. Williams, for instance, suggests that we should understand ethical concepts as “thick”, that is being both simultaneously descriptive and evaluative (i.e. courage). MacIntyre, working from a Neo-Aristotelian foundation of the good being located in social action and human relations, suggests that it is through social “practices” that we understand how best to live. Social relations and situations are the currency of our ethical understanding – not concepts reducible to big abstract nouns like “justice”, “divinity”, or even “good”. This is summed up by MacIntyre’s focus on the single unit of that currency: “Conversation” he says “is the form of human transactions in general […] conversations in particular and human action in general” are “enacted narratives.”

This extremely brief outline of some of the important ideas surrounding contemporary morality points towards what has been called the “turn to narrative” in the philosophy of ethics (see Galen Strawson (2004), Martin Warner (2009), Michael Eskin (2004)). So there is a double turn, of moral philosophy to the concept of narrative and of literary criticism to reading texts as ethical documents.

Martha Nussbaum is a major proponent of a humanist form of ethical criticism, a seminal moment of which came with the special edition of the journal New Literary History in 1983, edited by Ralph Cohen. Nussbaum’s paper entitled ‘Flawed Crystals’ on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl was published there, which carried out a reading of the relationships between characters undergoing ethical conflicts: Maggie’s desire to marry her husband the prince, balanced with her need not to abandon her father; her desire to maintain a coherent friendship and relationship with Charlotte, who is having an affair with her husband the Prince.

Writing in a slightly later essay from 1987, Nussbaum sees “an absence, from literary theory, of the organizing questions of moral philosophy, and of moral philosophy’s sense of urgency about these questions”. She turns to a narrow canon of narrative literary texts, on the premise that they can present unique forms of moral confrontation and resolution, drawing mainly on the novels of Henry James, although later looks at Beckett and Greek Tragedy. For the moral philosopher Nussbaum, literary texts, coupled with the clarifying voice of the ethical critic, can provide an account of social relations and complex situations, one which helps us to understand ethical conflicts in a way which is far more relevant to living than the philosophical text: “the very qualities that make novels so unlike dogmatic abstract treatises are, for us, the source of their philosophical interest.” Reading a text enriches our understanding of a particular ethical conflict, by giving us access to the thoughts and feelings of a character with whom the reader aligns. The aim of the critic, then, should be to “connect [..] observations [about the text] to an evolving conception of […] the sense of life it expresses.” In other words, the text can tell us about how to live our lives – how to consider ethical decisions, what kind of human being it is possible to be – in a way that abstract moral philosophising can’t. Nussbaum’s is a Neo-Aristotelian ethics, taking the question “what is the good life for a human being?” as its main focus, to look at and comment on the “moral imagination” of the characters a writer like Henry James presents us with. The novel “gestures toward the limits of ethical consciousness” through its narrative mode and stylistic choices.

There is something attractive about the clarity of Nussbaum’s project – that is, asking what sense of life a text provides us with, and casting light on that through a mechanism of close reading. We may think of it as what we’ve always done with literary texts – at school, at sixth form, in undergraduate literature essays. It is, at heart, a humanist approach. As such, it comes with some significant problems, especially for the critic of contemporary texts. Firstly, let us recall Rita Felski – “[t]he act of reading enacts an ethics and a politics in its own right”. Any ethical critic’s project purporting to attend to the surface of a text, to the ethical worlds we find there, privileges the ethical perspective of some authors over others. Nussbaum does acknowledge –

it is reasonable to suppose that the full and precise investigation of such issues would require turning, as well, to texts from other origins […] we will need to maintain as much self-consciousness as possible about our method and our implicit ends, asking what evaluative content they themselves express.

The main problem with an approach like Nussbaum’s, which looks to focus on “the shape of the sentences themselves, by images and cadences and pauses themselves, by the forms of the traditional genres, by narrativity, themselves” – the surfaces of the text – is one of taking too much for granted, in terms of seeing the text as something that reliably reflects situations of ethical conflict and anxiety, and in assuming that a text can reliably mean in a way that is fixed and ready to be turned into ethical commentary by just the right literary-critic-cum-philosopher.

Robert Eaglestone in Ethical Criticism: Reading After Levinas (1998) challenges Nussbaum’s very practice of reading. Eaglestone’s perspective is that critical theory doesn’t eschew ethics, but instead is essentially ethical in the way that it looks to demonstrate the ideological structures which shape human communication. He suggests that Nussbaum’s reading of texts like The Golden Bowl lacks an awareness of the “text as language”. For example, her reading of a character interaction in The Golden Bowl assumes that a particular event happens in one way, that two character definitely commit an act of adultery, when the text is unclear about this event. Eaglestone suggests that Nussbaum appears not to allow for the indeterminacy of meanings within a text and takes for granted a stable narrative truth. (Eaglestone here refers to J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive ethics of reading.)

So how do we read the ‘surface’ of a text, but without undermining the multiplicity of a text? This leads us to a strand of ethical criticism which can be labelled post-structuralist, one that is influenced by the thought of Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Eaglestone uses Levinas’s ideas to elaborate on the nature of criticism which maintains an awareness of the indeterminacy of the text. He states that ethical criticism must understand its responsibility as a temporary “interruption” rather than a fixed final word, in an echo of Levinas’ conception of the “saying” and the “said”.

To carry out criticism in light of a Levinasian ethical appeal is to engage in, or remain aware of, the process of “saying”, over the “said” – that is, the idea of communicating with an Other, interrupting a fixed or totalizing idea, rather than focusing on the totality of identifiable meaning. It involves viewing the literary text as a version of the Other, to be read responsibly, and with an awareness that readings constantly shift and change. Garber et al articulate this influence on ethical criticism in The Turn to Ethics as “a process of formulation and self-questioning that continually rearticulates boundaries, norms, selves and ‘others.’” (See also, Butler in Garber et. al, 2000).
How to proceed, then, in light of this “double turn” (Eskin, 2004) in philosophy and literature? How might a contemporary critic do justice to Levinas’s appeal in their way of reading? My project looks to produce ethical readings of a corpus of American novels, examining the ways they represent the human within digital technology, reading them in light of Levinas’s appeal toward ‘saying’ – of how criticism should not fix an ethics, but interrupt.

I see the novels in the recent part of the twenty-first century helping to articulate a new ethical-critical viewpoint, helping to understand a new ethical environment that has been brought about by the development of Web 2.0 digital communication, where social relations are in-part characterised by an absence of face, instantaneous messaging means that people are permanently connected and accessible, and embodied action is constantly represented symbolically as virtual action. By looking at the ethics of technology, or as I have been concerned recently, the phenomenology of the technological object, we can better understand too the political dimensions of digital interaction and behaviour.

This follows Eaglestone’s appeal regarding the practice of literary studies that “criticism in the future must embrace new questions, and only by doing so can it maintain its necessary commitment to the ethical – only then can it be ethical criticism.” The project will thus contribute an ethical reading, focused on the “new questions”. I will look at how the following questions are addressed by this corpus of novels:

  • What do we mean when we say we are losing “genuine” human connection when conversations are mediated through digital forms?
  • How is the traditional conception of a liberal-humanist subject being shaped and altered by digital structures?
  • In what ways are digital devices altering our understanding of conversations and social relationships?
  • How can critique of this help to highlight broader ethical and political concerns?

The wider and more challenging objections to what I see as an imperative to read the digital are important if the inquiry is to be aware enough to make a valuable comment on the changing nature of the human. For instance:

  • What biases are evident in a reading that privileges digital culture?
  • Do such readings lean towards a political impotence or a privileging of Western cultural norms?
  • Is any reading of digital structures in literature doomed to be a reading of an isolated self, behind a screen, rather than a new way of thinking about intersubjectivity and the Other?

I’d like to finish by quoting one of the writer’s I’m currently interested in, Tao Lin, who in 2011 contributed his own perspective on what the contemporary novel is, and the ethical knowledge he sees as part of its remit. He emphasises first of all the importance in focusing, directly, on what is happening now, and secondly on another set of questions, ones which echo a Levinasian preoccupation with the Other, and with a constant saying:

I currently feel most interested in reading/writing novels that aren’t improvements on or innovations of other novels. I want to view each potential novel as already definitively and unavoidably unique, improvable only in comparison to itself and then only from its creator’s singular perspective. I want to learn about another human’s unique experience from reports they’ve made themselves […] I do, sometimes–rarely, I think–want to know, “What do you think other people are going to be thinking about in 20 years?” or “How do you feel humankind, generally, is going to feel like in 50 or 100 years?” But mostly I want to know, “What are you thinking about?” and “How do you feel?”

 

It is perhaps, in some form, these final two questions which the ethical critic asks, first of the text, then perhaps of the author, then perhaps of the reader themselves. It is an openness of critical thought that fits with the nature of contemporary study, a discipline that is constantly shifting, altering and changing – a constant need to be interrupting our ethical understanding with different forms of saying.

Existential FOMO and the Internet

You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.

Cynicism about digital communication is what initially characterizes Paul O’Rourke, the existentially anguished dentist narrator at the heart of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. The novel is partly existential, but at the same time extremely wry in the manner of its philosophizing. In it, Paul O’Rourke, a successful but socially-inept dentist undergoes a temporary crisis brought about by a patient impersonating him online. This is not, however, some kind of financial thriller or tech-mystery, but a work that uses the Internet and digital communication to frame a contemporary existential anxiety. Paul’s identity is stolen by someone claiming to be part of a religion he has never heard of, and the central strand wherein we learn about the Ulms and their relationship to the Jewish faith runs in tandem with Paul’s own particularly contemporary search for meaning and connection.

Ferris shows us the contradictory ethical position on Internet communication and smart phones which we see posited daily in Western society. That is, things that encourage personal digital communication (i.e. smart phones, “me machines” as they are referred to derogatorily by Paul) lessen our ability to be concerned with, or by, other people. Speaking hypothetically to a patient, Paul outlines the extreme position, where the meta-data about the event takes the place of the event itself:

[Y]ou’re no longer able to sit in the waiting room and not check your e-mail no matter how sick your kid is. I know, I have a waiting room, I see it happen all the time. Even in the emergency room, you’d be texting and e-mailing and tweeting about how your kid was in the emergency room and how worried you were.

This perspective chimes with the narrator’s general cynicism about all of developed society – it’s the easiest way he finds of chastising a developed social world that he can’t connect to; later while alone, he ironically toasts the “frittatas and sex tapes”, “personal brand maintenance” and “echo-chamber[s] and reflecting pool[s]” of the millennial generation. When he cuts off Internet access at his dental surgery, however, Ferris makes him appear a foolish philistine, and the novel is one that acknowledges the hypocrisy of its narrator. Paul’s position on digital communication is a form of fear which turns into social anxiety – that the Internet presents to me all the things that I could be doing, but am not:

liking and digging and bookmarking and posting and tweeting all those things, and feeling more disconnected than ever? Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected.

The irony comes in that although Paul is one of those disconnected, throughout the novel his internet use becomes more and more involved. He himself concedes he is a regular internet user and that this has happened mostly without his realizing:

It wouldn’t have caused me such grief if my repulsion and eventual capitulation to the emoticon had not mirrored my larger struggle with the Internet itself. I tried my best to fend off the Internet’s insidious seduction, until at last all I did – at chairside, on the F train, supine upon the slopes of Central Park – was gaze into my me-machine and lose myself on the Internet.

The problem comes when you have very little self to lose on the internet. Within Ferris’s novel is an assumption about the Internet as a tool to present the self, or an extension of the self, which developed in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Paul is constantly anxious that the people in his day-to-day life know that the person acting in his name online is not him, and some of the central conflicts come in discussions over iPads, the critiquing of tweets by his former lover Connie and coworker Betsy Convoy. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour shows the Internet of Web 2.o, where the concept of a digital world is one which corresponds exactly to everyday lived experience, where embodied self and internet self are seen by society as one and the same thing, in that one creates and informs the other.

Paul’s initial hostility to social media and digital communication can be connected to his fears about whether or not he is a person with a coherent and meaningful identity. At one point, Connie tells Paul that he should tell everyone who he really is, to be outraged about the fake-Paul online, but this serves to highlight that Paul himself is struggling with the idea of how to define himself, especially while alone. Even for an online identity to be a subversion, it has to be a subversion of a social face that you are clear about, or happy with. A form of hyper self-awareness is required. For Ferris’s protagonist, confrontation with the Internet actually becomes confrontation with himself. He lacks clarity about how to connect to others, as typified by the manner in which he falls in love, allowing himself to be defined by his relationship to another. The novel can be seen as Ferris’ working through the ways in which Paul “emailing with [him]self” – that is, engaging in a dialogue with the man who is impersonating him – is a method of reevaluating his place in the world.

The most significant moments of this reevaluation are those when Paul is alone in his apartment, attempting to understand the existential anxiety that overtakes him. He feels loneliness keenly, due to the suicide of his father when he was still a young boy, and this event frames Paul’s nihilism:

The night was now as dark as it could get, and from thinking of how dark the night was and of my forfeited options, I proceeded to think of how alike this one night might be to my last night on earth, when all options, and not just one night’s options, expired. Every night was a night of limitless possibility expired, of a life forfeited, of a foreclosed opportunity to expand, explore, risk, hope, and live.

Sublime images  of destruction follow this fear – flooding, storms, wars, everything “sweet and surprising [going] dark against the vast backdrop of the universe”. With this, Paul gets out of bed and checks his email, where there is “still no answer” from whoever is impersonating him online. He also calls Connie, who doesn’t answer, and in this moment the “me-machine” becomes an engine of paranoia, where Paul “has to conclude that at the moment she might have been calling or sending me a text, not only was she doing neither, in all likelihood she wasn’t even thinking about me.”

At the moment where things are as dark as they can get, and where Paul feels most alone (he imagines all the other insomniacs finally asleep) he searches for assurance that another human being is thinking about him. The digital communication Paul loathes and fears is used by Ferris as a way of emphasizing his alienation at the same time as it is a conduit for “limitless possibility”. There is an inherent tension in his relationship to this kind of communication; the desperate need for the connection but the desire not to find rejection. This is the same character who religiously watches tapes of the Red Sox on VCR, where there is only a one way conduit – where possibilities are fixed, where nothing is missed. There is just a controlled nostalgia, one that is individualized, without dialogue, or the need to connect to another, or with the concurrent fear of missing a connection. At a later point, the same desperation for connection is seen in a similarly dark and lonely moment, but he doesn’t only hope for Connie, but for anyone to have connected:

I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. The solution at desperate moments like this was always to find something to do, and I mean anything, as quickly as possibly. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose. Maybe Connie had called or texted or emailed, or Mercer, or… but no. No one had called or emailed or texted.

Paul still reaches for his device, but it is the possibility for connection that he is searching for. He is disconnected, and becoming “more disconnected” through the possibilities that he can never fulfill. In this sense, his confrontation with the Internet can be constructed as one around his own desires, something which can never be fulfilled.

The novel does partly resolve, with a shift in Paul’s perspective on what it is to live a meaningful life. The end of the novel is framed by discussions on the Ulm wikipedia page and e-mails from a newly married Connie. The Internet becomes an unspoken part of Paul’s new outlook, where limitless possibility exist as a path to follow – to just “do it all” – rather than a reason to shun connection. Ferris’s novel tells us to get on with living in every form available, to remain aware that fear of being alone in a society on the Internet is a kind of existential FOMO – if someone else is doing it, why should I do any of it at all?
Bibliography:
Ferris, J. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Viking, London, 2014

“An Opening Into Something”: New Media Connection in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

“Without a sense of how weird the present is — how potentially weird the present is — it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future.” – William Gibson

I’ve just finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003). Anyone who isn’t familiar with his work is probably more aware of his influence than they think. Without Gibson, for example, The Matrix probably wouldn’t exist, having taken its cue from his seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer (1984), where we first find the concept of cyberspace articulated.

I’m interested in Gibson for two reasons. Firstly, because of how his recent writing provides a unique perspective on twenty-first century genre. With Pattern Recognition, which is the first in the Blue Ant trilogy, we see an established sci-fi author alter the boundary between serious literary fiction and science fiction. Furthermore, Gibson’s line above acknowledges what has been a strand in literary criticism on the contemporary, that the now is too interesting in and of itself – he’s a significant commentator on how we understand the contemporary. The second is that, having only read Neuromancer earlier this summer (and becoming a complete evangelist for it in the process, telling all and sundry that this was a work of sci-fi that is still extremely powerful in the present day), I was keen to see how Gibson’s style has developed up until this point.

Pattern Recognition makes free use of new media interaction. Gibson understands the proliferation of this kind of communication as significant to human experience. These forms of signification, the descriptions of screen-time, connection and online communities are central to the messages if the novel, and arguably the most important and essential relationships we see are almost wholly conditioned by technological interaction.

The protagonist is Cayce, who works as a kind of finder for a form of postmodern ad agency, identifying “cool” when she sees it, understanding which logos and designs will work simply by a form of intuition. It is an ability which works the other way too, with brands she finds disturbing causing an extreme phobic response. She becomes embroiled in a hunt for the maker of the Footage, an internet film phenomenon. The Footage is a modular avant-garde event, sections of film released sporadically and anonymously, one which has garnered a cult following online. Cayce is part of F:F:F, Fetish:Footage:Forum, a site dedicated to intricate and impassioned discussion of the origin, style and possible purpose of the Footage.

Gibson’s thriller plot is essentially a holding pattern for Cayce’s interactions with the community, and with her own struggles to maintain a grip on her jet-lagged soul. Her constant travel across the globe means that she is constantly out-of-sync with the cities in which she resides. Her moments of connection – the screens, the community – provide some level of personal security:

It is a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar cafe that exists somehow outside of natural geography and beyond time zones.

The community is expertly drawn by Gibson (there have a developed vocabulary for delineating which hermeneutic gang various users are in – “Kubrick’s Garage” or “Spielberg’s Closet?”). For Cayce, the community around the Footage, and the Footage itself, provide a connection which she otherwise lacks. When asked if it’s just that she’s reading too much into it, she confirms that there is something ineffable, either in the footage itself, or in the process, which keeps her returning:

I’ve wanted to believe it, simply in order to let the thing go. But then I go back and look at it again, and there’s that sense of … I don’t know. Of an opening into something. Universe? Narrative?

Cayce constantly struggles to comprehend the narrative she is part of, or the universe that has allowed her father to go missing. F:F:F provides a form of imaginative understanding that helps to augment her personal understanding. This kind of interaction is not a complete comfort and saviour, but it does provide the displaced person with a temporary sense of connection, and thus control.

Cayce makes reference to metaphors of the soul because of her disjunction from time zones and the constantly weirder events that take place in them. The constant is her internet connection, her ability to read correspondence those few figures in her life which help to ground her one form of fixed and controllable identity. Her personal proximity with Parkaboy – an influential user on the F:F:F site – increases throughout the novel, even while geographical proximity becomes so distant and multifarious as not to matter. Cayce acknowledges the shift in proximity, the movement of F:F:F into her reality, as something physical – a negating of the metaphor of screen world:

She looks at the phone and wonders who Parkaboy is […] But now, in some way she can’t quite grasp, the universe of F:F:F is everting. Manifesting physically in the world.

The very structure of the novel acknowledges that new media connections serve multiple essential purposes, but that one of its main functions is to do with the texture of loneliness. Cayce is utterly lonely throughout the novel, and the increasing recurrence of e-mail communication provides a foundation, the potential of close human connection, which might bring her soul back in check, cope finally with the loss of her father. Later in the novel, when her sense of displacement is most acute, she keeps searching for the right connection through those familiar portals:

Checking her mail.
Timing out, empty.
Sleep no longer an issue […]
Showers.
Does not think.

Most of the varying narrative strands are in fact concluded through e-mail correspondence, as though confirming that these are narratives Cayce now, part-resolved, can comfortably sees herself as legible element of. In this sense, the ethical question at the centre of the novel is around how to maintain connections that will keep us in existence. For Gibson, comprehending and gaining some control over the narratives which make up our existence, and maintaining the identities which allow us to understand and control our lives, is an act that is supplemented by new media connection.  He understands that new technologies become a part of us, because they constantly redefine what it means to be present, or consistently alive:

We seldom legislate new technologies into being. They emerge, and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us – as surely and perhaps as terribly as we’ve been redefined by broadcast television.

If Pattern Recognition could be called a novel that chronicles one form of plunge into the vortices of change, then it readily accepts and describes the redefinition that comes with it. New media, technologically-conditioned-communication, is another way of trying to play the game of catch-up with the soul, of working out ways of being less alone.

 

References:

Gibson, W. Pattern Recognition (2003)

Wired Interview with William Gibson

‘God’s Little Toys’ – William Gibson on Art, the Remix and Technology

On William Gibson’s Neuromancer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Techno-Ethical: On Dave Eggers and The Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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