“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Work Cited:

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

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

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.