The Inadequacy of The Novel (Mediation as Infinity

“….the idea of infinity is transcendence itself, the overflowing of an adequate idea. If totality can not be constituted it is because Infinity does not permit itself to be integrated. It is not the insufficiency of the I that prevents totalization, but the Infinity of the Other.”

Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity

Novels, the ones that are called literary by educational institutions, by the cultural studies and literature departments which reside within them, are constantly concerned by their own adequacy or validity. The death of the novel has become an irritating cliché for anyone trying to do resonant or resistant readings of texts in classrooms or readings groups, or for essays or theses. “We know”, they want to say. Better to say the novel has always been undead, existing in a state of not really existing, vampiric, choose your demonstrative-monster metaphor. I expect this is not my idea.

And a version of this declaration, or description, concerning the status of the novel came to mind when thinking about Levinas’s use of the term adequate. It is in the above quotation from Totality and Infinity that Levinas uses it to  suggest the state of an idea which is coherent or complete. An idea founded in the discourse of reason, which can be thought or assimilated, thematized, by the totality of the self. But it seems that adequacy can have multiple senses above. That it is enough or satisfactory – or sufficient. Perhaps satisfactory is suitable given Levinas’s description of solitude as a form of personal enjoyment.

Adequation is also a kind of equivalence or making equal, a coming up to a necessary standard. And this starts me thinking about the “standards” of the literary novel, in the sense that it is both self-regulating and reliant on institutional regulation of its status and value. A novel attempts to be adequate to the very idea of what it means to be valuable/literary but at the same time wishes to critique or disturb the notion that there is a basic idea pertaining to what it is, or what it is meant to be. It wants to be adequate, to just about survive, its own literary status, and in doing so simultaneously display its own anxiety about its literary status. (Derrida’s in this paragraph haunting the vampire.)

Thus there are a bunch of things the novel can and can’t do. It can’t do reality – but it can try and succeed at mimesis. It can do the avant garde, but is hamstrung by a total avant garde novel. It can communicate and “move” people, but it is also complex and requires creative-critical readings. It can show us politics, but also we mustn’t use it to do politics.

It strikes me that digital mediation  – chat logs of characters interacting, characters trying to google, characters at a screen – is something which shows up this necessary inadequacy of the novel. The literary needs to keep the digital as a text separate, in order to bolster its status as a singular form of textuality, to preserve the kind of temporary, quantum totality it need to simultaneously establish and not establish. At the same time, the literary novel has to assimilate different forms of mediation, as it has always done, in order to acknowledge its ability to try and do reality, or to maintain its own vitality.

But the act of digital mediation contains a difficulty which amplifies the novel’s inadequacy. It contains within it an encounter with exteriority, an infinity, with the volume turned up; mediation lit up with the problem of the other as the absent-but-present glow through the screen. The novel attempts to assimilate this, like other forms of textuality which were embedded in it from the beginning (letters, diaries, ships logs) but in doing so demonstrates an impulse to make it the same, the make it something the novel can deal with or thematize. The “infinity” presented on multiple levels by the event of digital mediation ultimately troubles the novel not only because it does not permit itself to be integrated, in that it is a formal and structural interruption. Its interrupting capacity is also the interruption of the problem of mediation which is the anxiety of the novel itself. It shows the literary a mirror, and within it is contained the necessary inadequacy of the form. It makes possible a reading of the anxious crisis of the novel.

This doesn’t kill the novel, put the stake through the heart of the vampire in its institutional coffin, but it sprinkles holy water around the castle as a constant reminder. To talk of the novel as dead is to claim that it was ever alive to begin with. And to suggest that digital textuality is “virtual” or easily reducible to a negative version of subjectivity is to engage in a line of thinking which denies the primordial status of mediation as a condition for all discourse. The recognition of this inadequacy, though, can make for the continuation of being for others, can drag the novel not from death into life, but make the novel live and die well.



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
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer

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.
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??

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.

“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.

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?
Ferris, J. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Viking, London, 2014