“Things aren’t different. Things are things.” Reading Cyborgs in Gibson’s Neuromancer

 

 

There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he’d always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered –as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. (p.239)

This moment in Neuromancer is the description of the protagonist Case encountering a cyber-version of his murdered girlfriend, Linda Lee. It comes as the result of Case’s most prolonged “flat-lining” episode having been “jacked-in” to cyberspace – he arrives in a kind of digital-mental purgatory created by the AI Neuromancer. Case works out where he is, has sex with Linda, and then refuses Neuromancer’s offer of eternal digital life, beginning the narrative climax of the novel. This passage serves to emphasize, I think, how digital textuality in Neuromancer in-fact reproduces a hierarchy of reality over virtuality, one which retains the security of a heterosexual, masculine subject in the face of ontological uncertainty effectively navigated by Harawayan cyborg-female subjects such as Linda and Molly. When the concept of the cyborg as a radical imaginary becomes most pronounced, the novel draws back from it, unable to embrace a feminine irony, incoherence and uncertainty.

The desire Case feels  for Linda in the encoded cyber-memory where he sees her is made-up of contradiction and irony. It weighs physically (“she pulled him down”) but it is also a technology, a “sea of information coded” which is simultaneously read as biological or “natural” (“pheromone.”) It is a then “drive”, understood in a paradoxical sense, “beyond knowing” but “read” by the body in a “strong” and “blind” process. The desire located in the body is seemingly unknowable information, both technological and “natural”, digital and physical. The passage works initially to create an uncertainty about the human-machine continuity. Only humans, not machines, can “read” the inarticulable desires of the body, but those desires can’t be thought outside of a technological literacy – the “strength” which Case recognises in Linda is born in the “relentless street” but is manifest here in digital through the powerful AI Neuromancer. The ambiguity of what it means to read – only the body can read a body, but here finds strength in a digital body – seems to create fertile ground for radical thinking about being (about ontology). Perhaps, for instance, desire could be conceived of without a binary of body/machine, and then without an anthropocentric notion of what constitutes sanctioned desire. The contradiction flesh presents to the digital could be retained as an emergent pleasure.

With this, Case becomes aware of the irony which conditions his way of thinking about the world: that while cyberspace enthusiastically attempts to jettison the body, as he desperately wants to, without the meat space, mocked by the cowboys, there is no cyberspace, no place from which to transcend. Digital bodily pleasure is physical bodily pleasure, despite the constant denigration of the physical body, and the sense that cyberspace is a transcendent project. But Neuromancer does not allow this irony to reconfigure the desiring, male subject. It does not persist, or manifest newly liminal pleasures, and as such reproduces a plastic cyborg position, which is only geographic or solely prosthetic (sublime, perhaps) rather than ontological. Any ironic realisation is subsumed, and used to reinforce patriarchal pleasure as a condition-of and goal-for the transcendental. The manner of going “beyond knowing”, whether by plugging into cyberspace or by pursuing desire in meat space, is limited by the conditions of the knowing it would seek to escape. This is confirmed by Case’s coherent reading of Linda, and the novel’s inability to see the situation of reading/unambiguous reading as a problem. Case and Linda have sex, “effecting the transmission of the old message”, a description which constructs Case’s desire as a form of reproductive/textual power, and seems to erase the sense that Linda is an uncertain digital construct. Case, concerned about what might be happening to him in this uncertain and unfamiliar cyberspace, then seeks out the boy incarnation of Neuromancer in order to better reach understanding. Linda tries to follow him, and is read as an object by Case, a now paradoxically tainted and human digital unfantasy: “She looked like one of the girls on Finn’s old magazines in Metro Holografix come to life, only she was tired and sad and human, the ripped costume pathetic as she stumbled over clumps of salt-silver sea grass.” (p.243) While the uncertainty of the human-machine continuum suggested a way of re-imagining desire, the only character who can attempt to articulate it is our frightened, post-coital male cowboy. Regardless of where a possible reader might be on the human-computer continuum, the problem of who is able to read and how they do so is left unaddressed. After all, the “information coded in spiral and pheromone” is only readable by the body if the subject has a body which is allowed to engage in a performance of reading. Linda Lee is denied this reading agency, she is transmitted to as a node rather than reciprocally receiving something which she is allowed to process or think. This is because she is simultaneously computer code and woman. She is unable to even attempt to know that she is a “ghost”, as the boy-AI Neuromancer labels her, confined by Case’s fear of her ontological undecideability. The gendered way of knowing in “reality”, manifest as a coherent and certain process of reading, dominates ways of knowing the virtual, and thus the novel denies Linda’s possible place as a positive cyborg subject/myth/monster.

The main female character in the novel, Molly, possesses far greater agency in the text than Linda, but her resonance is limited in the final pages. Molly is able to read the constant irony of the human/machine continuity which defines the world of Neuromancer with a competency commensurate to (or better than) Case’s. However, the possibilities for such reading agency to move “beyond knowing” are confined at the end of the novel. Her final textual presence is a paper note explaining that her and Case’s relationship is “TAKING THE EDGE OFF MY GAME […] IT’S THE WAY IM WIRED I GUESS”.(p.267) which Case literally screws up. The knowing irony in the pun and Molly’s pragmatic voice humorously puncture Case’s romantic-cowboy trajectory. Her rejection of a traditional heterosexual relationship in favour of retaining a fugitive technological literacy makes Molly into a more robustly Harawayan cyborg figure than Linda Lee, although one which the novel is ultimately unwilling to reproduce, threatening as it is to the frame of a traditionally-gendered subjectivity. Case’s romantic vision keeps Molly in the role as lost lover: “I never even found out what color her eyes were. She never showed me.” (p.268) The final line of the novel is not a celebration of what Molly might uncertainly represent – the possibility of new pleasures, hybrid and necessarily incoherent identities  – but provides an image of the heterosexual male haunted by both versions of his frustrated desire for the female body. “He never saw Molly again” contains a lament for the fact that neither the techno-ghost Linda nor the cyborg-Molly allows for the retention of a stable masculine subject, because of the uncertainty they provoke in human-machine and gendered terms. Molly disappears, and the possibility of continuing to read gendered/machine relations anew is stopped; the novel is literally unable to move beyond the male reader/narrator towards a cyborg one. The final version of the AI Wintermute – physically present as male, The Finn – is tellingly one of total coherence. That he is “Nowhere. Everywhere […] the sum total of the works, the whole show” is something which another female character, 3Jane’s mother “couldn’t imagine.” Such coherence is the only outcome the masculine imagination could foresee. The novel finishes having reinforced a vision of virtuality which glorified the male cyborg, for Case is the counter-cultural analogue of the military-industrial superhuman, a hacker-romantic-hero. The text retreats from the very cyberspace which would accommodate the female cyborg and allow them to flourish, taking solace instead in a romantic fantasy, a reality of eternal recuperation. In the words of the AI “[t]hings aren’t different” in the end, things like being, or gender. “Things are things.” (p.270)

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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.

Questions Concerning Heidegger and Technology

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

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

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

Answers on a long and complex postcard.

On Narrative Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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

Reading to understand limits – on Dorothy J. Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krapp’s Last Facebook Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

The Ethical Environment – technology as ‘threat’?

I’ve started the project by reading some basic Ethics in the last few weeks. Simon Blackburn and Alasdair MacIntyre have been my main ways in, as well as looking at Aristotle’s Ethics. A common idea has been that a particular ethical environment or historical context is always seen to influence the first principles of an ethical system. It sound a bit like saying “well, it’s all relativism then” but the notion is more nuanced than this. These philosophers seem to be saying that to understand ethics we must first understand that ethical rules are themselves partly constitutive of the societies they appear to define.

If we accept this as a feasible way of beginning an analysis of a particular society or ethical situation, then to understand contemporary culture we must first define the ethical environment. There are ethical questions being asked in ways that they were not asked before. I would suggest that a central concern of a twenty-first century ethics, alongside happiness and social justice, is something like humanness or human connection. This is engendered by the post-industrial Internet-conditioned mode of developed living, because human beings now have many new ways of acting with regard to themselves and others in society. This opening of ethical dimensions has occurred through technological leaps and the ubiquity of personal technological apparatus, as well as through the ability to transfer information instantaneously – the overall liquidity of existence, as Baumann describes it. MacIntyre confirms this idea, that ethical standpoints cannot be divorced from the mechanisms through which they are enacted, that “[m]oral concepts are embodied in and are partially constitutive forms of social life.”

So how does technological interaction make up part of our social life?  Evidence that this is a central question in 2015 isn’t hard to come by. The comments section of any broadsheet science piece reporting on social networking will usually contain the following popular arguments: we’re losing something by talking online too much; we isolate ourselves through interaction via computer screens; we’re losing the art of conversation; we don’t talk to each other anymore. Just as easily we can provide rejoinders to these ambiguous arguments: we’re gaining something through the ability to communicate online; we are able to connect with others we wouldn’t normally be able to connect; we can communicate in ways which allow us more control and make us more comfortable and confident.

Obviously there is a concern in contemporary culture defined by the notion of connection and the way we choose to connect to other human beings, but too often it falls into a kind of unfounded disquiet, part nostalgia and part hysteria. Some major commentators have looked in detail at the negative impacts of this alteration of connection. Sherry Turkle is probably the most well known, and her latest book – Reclaiming Conversation – is one example of how our ethical environment is being defined. 

 

How do we understand this environment objectively if we’re ‘in it’ all the time?

In investigating the nature of computer-mediated interaction in the twenty-first century, we need to examine techno-ethical situation as explored by fiction writers, for fiction provides us with a way of imagining and exploring the difficult-to-define notion of humanness, of connectivity. To understands what we might be losing, or gaining, through the development of connective behaviours, we must examine the documents which provide us with visions of Others. The ethical environment demonstrates that we are keenly conscious of our ever-connected state, and concerned about the effect it might have on our ability to maintain genuine, valuable connection with other human beings. David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” If we are worried about the further development of our own loneliness, then we must confront it through understanding the fiction which articulates it. 

 

Bibliography

1 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics : A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. edn (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).

2 Simon Blackburn, and Inc NetLibrary, Ethics : A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 80 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. David Foster Wallace, in interview