Digitally Mediated Communication as Caliban’s Face In The Mirror* (*or ‘On The Screen’ if you want a tidy pun, but it feels wrong and naff -ah –OR “All readings are cacophony until they are quieted”

Strikes me that the anxiety about digitally mediated communication that is explained as “someone just being able to switch off the conversation at any time” is a dissimulation of a truth of what is appealed to as liberal discourse when said discourse happens in physical proximity (i.e. as dialogue, or conversation). What I mean is, worrying that people can control online discourse and end conversations if they don’t like them is really a worry about who has access to behaviours which express power in discourse. Because in online spaces, (often only temporarily, mind) voices can exist in equal magnitude, or volume. The sound metaphor makes more sense  I think.

Politicians, for example, have always committed a rhetorical “switching off” of engagement in sanctioned speech whenever they don’t want to answer a question. It is mocked sometimes, perhaps ridiculed or laughed at. But it’s still, arguably, accepted, and still performs a similar social role to the closing of a chat window.  Insert your favourite example: Men talk over women – it is sanctioned by whatever can be squeezed under the umbrella of rational debate. If it happens the other way round the woman is labelled otherwise (“You’re an agitator! A feminazi! Bossy! Nasty!”) Managers ignore the voices of workers, because in their ears the obvious pulse of capital keeps going. It comes down to what you choose to label as noise. I know none of this is new, I’m just saying it again, I was thinking it all again just now – ways of thinking never complete though do they?? they have to keep-

I’d suggest that the notion that technologies of digital mediation create novel conditions for denying discourse, that lots of people are readily using their positions online to create spaces which are hermetically sealed from conflict, opposing views etc is an argument used to fog up the actual conditions of discourse in the liberal state. It’s not like any online space is a playground of joyful agreement, even those which are supposed ideologically homogeneous. And anyway, people looking to find a form of political/ideological agreement in their everyday encounters is hardly a new thing – you do it every fucking day and always did, especially in physical/material/this person in front of me ways. If you don’t like what somebody’s saying and you’re more powerful or privileged, it is in fact very easy to find ways of silencing those people, either literally or by questioning the validity of their speech. And this especially in ssspoken disccourssse! The notion that a prelapsarian world of well-informed citizens and equal and honest debate existed “before the Internet came along” is not only a laughable idea but a dangerous one, because it is used to implicitly validate the silencing of voices (“Don’t listen to anything you read online”; the obstructions and insults directed at any proponent of third wave feminism; “discourse online is uncivil”; online communities are weird; “you can’t have friends you’ve never met in person that’s weird”; “we need to have a proper face-to-face conversation about this” etc etc –  – I know I know there are problems with this position as a total one, we have to have to challenge the voice which does violence, I’m not trying to suggest some hierarchy of communicative practices. Quite the opposite.)

Modes of digital mediation shows Caliban his face in the mirror –(on the fourth draft read though I feel weird about this loaded/clichéd image but don’t want to take it out for fear of disturbing the sound of the whole thing) -anyway anway- digital mediation shows calibanhisfaceinthemirror by granting some measure of equality (in a micro sense, facebook messenger is not communism) in the control of the on/off status of discourse, the ability to sanction or reject speech, to those who would be otherwise marginalised. When this new (albeit limited) power is lived, performed or acted upon by those in a less powerful position, it upsets those who are better able to perform the physical, spoken on/off discourse. (See: the gendered reaction to a woman opening up challenging or radical positions on Twitter) So the claim starts off that digitally mediated discourse is somehow invalid discourse, because of the uncertainty involved in communication, that lots of people involved in discourse have some ability to perform speech with an equal voice which makes it… cacophonous. Or it goes further, and the very idea of its invalidity is used to further justify a mediated silencing (deleting comments or posts) or what might be called switching-off behaviours (derailing arguments/abuse/long comments designed to finalize and make certain i.e. to indicate by magnitude what kind of speech matters or is allowed).

Aside, can it be said that cacophony exists to be critically thought through or with? All readings are cacophony until they are quieted. When and where do you choose to plug your ears and does your body allow you to plug your ears? Good for you.

The latest example of the naked attempt by power to silence, Trump’s banning of selected news organisations from the White House press briefing, could be read in the context of the above. It is a grab for the power-over-discourse where it can still be unambiguously  enacted: a physical location.

If somebody is uncomfortable with the ambiguity of discourse on the internet, or looks to establish a particular form of order on a particular form of mediated speech, it is not due to the novel conditions of speech allowed by those digital technologies. It is due to the person who desires to sanction or silence the speech of others – others whose equality with their voice disturbs them.

Close Reading Digital Mediation: Why Use Levinas? Why Use the Literary Text?

I’ve been thinking more about the problems of disinhibition in Laurie Johnson’s work. See his face/interface paper here, but, long story short, the digital interface can enjoin us in ethical responsibility, because we understand that there’s an Other there. The main challenge to this idea might be to say that mediated communication – or any kind of mediation – automatically creates disinhibition, which results in the diminished sense of responsibility to others.

Johnson accepts that communication online appears to present “freedom” before “responsibility”, and that this can lead to a diminished responsibility, if (and that’s a big if) it is understood that anti-social communication is the result of such diminished responsibility. This is partly predicated, by Johnson, on the notion of anonymity. This, I would suggest, is a less significant concept now, given the fact that online acts are generally constitutive of identity, or at least closer to the material/embodied idea a user might have of their identity, rather than a consciously altered version of it. I would tentatively use the example of IP addresses being used to trace and charge individuals who use hate speech online as a way of demonstrating how the idea of the internet as an unregulated libertarian realm is changing, that anonymity in a basic sense isn’t necessarily an option (very recently in the UK, the CPS updated their guidelines on prosecution of people engaging in abuse/bullying online).

Johnson seems to want to use Levinas as a corrective to this, to demonstrate the potential for the Levinasian ethical encounter in mediation. As I’ve said before, I agree with the nature of this appeal and think Levinas is useful here because it provides a way of thinking responsibility without physical presence – i.e. that my perceived freedom online is still only possible because of the other. The more implicit argument from Johnson is of a Levinasian stripe too; that there’s no reason that such disinhibition should lead to anti-social behaviour – or rather that it is not *simply* the act of its mediation which necessarily explains that anti-social behaviour.

Johnson’s second paper on this specific subject – ‘GUI Faces and “Sticky” Ethics’ – takes on a thorough review of sociological/psychological work on the issue of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)/face-to-face communication (FTF) (am wary of wandering in fields I have very little experience of, although interestingly Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature). Johnson makes a strong claim for the fact that this dichotomy – this digital dualism which leads to deficit-models of mediated communication – is breaking down. He then asks why we might keep using Levinas to talk about this stuff:

For this reason, a contingent phenomenological imperative is still in play as an adjunct to the ethical imperative: there is no single definition of CMC from which a complete ethics of CMC could be constituted, so we retain the need to engage in phenomenological inquiry into the differences between the various forms of CMC, and to investigate each use of CMC anew.

It is useful, along such lines, to cling to something like the Levinasian “face” not just for the sake of distinguishing something like a face within CMC; rather, the Levinasian face is useful for the very reason that it asks us to always ask anew in each act of interlocution what it is that enjoins a user to respond in the manner of a “bringing forth” into language.

So Johnson says that Levinas’s concept of the face is useful in this kind of work, not only because of how it might re-calibrate ideas of responsibility – or the *possibility* of responsibility – but because it suggests that each mediated interaction is a unique act of interlocution which needs to be constantly examined as such.

And I want to say in my research that this contingency Levinas provides us with, as identified by Johnson, the “always asking anew” is what the literary text accommodates. Because not only do new literary works themselves act as an “asking anew” – ideally the novel, predisposed as it is to the conveying the problem of subjectivity – but also the act of reading itself  “asks anew” (this is a huge concept and idea to unpack obviously).

I’m not sure this isn’t just saying “well because literature’s good innit”. But if literature didn’t some significant relation to ethical life, then Levinas probably wouldn’t have said that it was literature which brought him to philosophy, and wouldn’t quote Dostoevsky and reference Shakespeare.

This has got me thinking about what kind of mediated communication appears to be privileged by the novels I’m looking at. It is often private communications, which appear to highlight the complication of public and private identity. In Zadie Smith’s NW , for instance, Keisha’s language in the chat transcript bears the trace of a political resistance, a restatement of the sociolect of associated with her black identity. But it isn’t simply that the mediated communication allows this in some kind of falsely empowering way – Keisha herself is concerned by the fantasy construction of herself as exotic – but rather that it provides a way of acknowledging the problem of it. Perhaps the distinction then between Felix/Nathan and Keisha is that the latter has a chance to resort to forms of textuality which are not conditioned by their immediate social/economic conditions (Nathan and Felix engage in mobile, vulnerable, mediated communication in order to engage in precarious economic transactions). This could be a way of looking more closely at mediated communication in the context of social status – that the process of mediation highlights the problem of social status by apparently providing the potential for it to be temporarily erased.

“the breaking up of inwardness” – Knowledge, Dialogue and The Internet Meme as Saying

The process of internet memes might be described as follows (this is me improvising a bit). The circulation of images, gifs, screen caps, cartoons, animations occurs first of all as the sharing or repetition of a joke, and then as parody of the joke, then as more oblique and obscure self-reference. The meme then becomes the act of circulation as detached from recognisable signifiers of the original frame of reference. Meme culture is seeping into popular discourse, which means there are a lot people trying to “get” what memes do, when in fact the telos of a meme is the relational or circulatory structure of the meme itself.

I’ve been wanting to say this about memes for a while. Reading Levinas has led me to connect his conception of the”saying” with the concept of the meme. It was a particular quote used by Amit Pinchevski in his paper on Levinas and the ethics of communication that crystalized this thinking, and this piece is in debt to his excellent words which you can read here.

Levinas’s philosophy is quite intricate, almost web-like. It’s relational in both what it tries to do and how it does it. His phenomenology is much more like literature than other philosophers. This is because he was writing in a style which attempted to get away from the idea that you can and should fix communication as something like “getting across information” or “handing on knowledge” or “two people exchanging ideas”. For Levinas, communicating with an other is “an ultimate situation”, one which comprises the foundation stone for all ethical thinking. In the encounter with an other person, they address us and we respond. Importantly, however, this language must always retain a sense of the other person’s difference to us, their alterity.

Whenever we use language to mean in the world, it designates, becomes fixed. Levinas calls this designating of stuff in language the “said”. We can designate lots of things – we can explain that there is a particular set of rules for “right” or “wrong”; we can label someone; we can tell someone something we know. We can take what we think we know and understand and give it to someone else by fixing it in language. When things are in the “said”, you can know them, understand them – and you can also “thematize” them, own them. Imagine the “said” is a book – all the stuff in the book is fixed there on the page. It can’t be changed, it’s not in dialogue with someone else. This means other people can be made subject to that knowledge.

But that’s what knowledge is, that’s the point, you might say. But Levinas understood that there was always something outside of the idea of knowledge as fixed, as “said”, and that having fixed ideas can result in violence. There is an excess beyond the said, which exists in the alterity of the Other. This alterity, this difference, is the thing that can never be assimilated into knowledge. If we understand all knowledge as “said”, then we deny difference, and attempt to fix and make “the same” through language the alterity of the other. If we deny difference, we create a totalizing way of understanding the world. To return to our metaphor, if all knowledge is fixed in the “book of said”, how does it change, adapt or accommodate difference? It becomes totality, the social and political implications of which are clearly violent.

This is where the “saying” comes in. Imagine you picked up the book of all the “said” knowledge and started reading aloud from it – performing it, if you like. Your performance, your saying of the words, would add all kinds of differences. You might even alter or change some of the knowledge in order to make it fit better with the world you live in. You could start unfixing the “said” in order to accommodate difference. And it wouldn’t be to do with the language on the page – it would be other stuff, excessive stuff, introducing this difference. But it isn’t just to do with this particular oral way of “unfixing” things. Written language can enact a “saying” too, by being self-reflexive, and retaining awareness of where it fixes meaning. It can allow room for indeterminacy by using multiple phrases and terms for the same thing, it can use the structures and features of dialogue and interlocution.

The concept of the “saying” is that knowledge is always related in a particular way – it is not just the signs and signifiers of language which convey something, but in fact the very nature of the communication itself. One metaphor which Levinas uses to explain this concept in his earlier work, Totality and Infinity, is teaching. As all good teachers know, communicating to students is not just about telling them information – you are not just a conveyor of the “said”. Much of teaching is in “saying”. “Saying is communication” suggests Levinas “but as a condition for all communication, as exposure. Communication is not reducible to the phenomenon of truth”. When you teach, you perform the “said”, in the “saying”. One does not necessarily replace the other – the saying augments the said with the trace of alterity. I don’t just tell the student information – I acknowledge and understand their difference – and the asymmetrical nature of my relationship to them – through the performance of saying.

So back to memes. Memes are more saying than said. It appears that the “said” of memes – what they mean, what they signify – is always in the process being erased by the manner of their saying; the fact they are posted, shared, circulated virally. To misunderstand a meme, or to misapprehend the way that a meme communicates is, perhaps, to worry about getting the joke, or what it is trying to say. In fact, memes are a manifestation of a Levinasian ethics which emphasizes recognizing and responding to the alterity of the Other before any form of rational thought or cognitive act. Memes are first and foremost acts of relation, performances of “saying”:

The unblocking of communication, irreducible to the circulation of communication which presupposes it, is accomplished in the saying. It is not due to the contents that are inscribed in the said and transmitted to the interpretation and decoding done by the other. It is in the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability.

Memes perform their relation within what Levinas would refer to as proximity, that is, the sense that we have an ethical responsibility to the other. They create vulnerability in the relationship between self and other online, in that they challenge the notion that we need fixed and clearly explicable signifiers to communicate. Memes are “irreducible” to what has come before. Memes break up inwardness, in that there is no interior psychological origin which acts as the progenitor of their supposed knowledge.

Pinchevski’s gloss of the above quote from Levinas is very useful to turn to here as a final word, as it gets at the idea of saying as establishing the ethical relation, rather than the said. The relational over the linguistic, if you will:

What is put forward is that communication is not only the process of giving signs; its effect transcends its content, for communication is always for someone and therefore already involves an unarticulated expression of relation. Thus, for Levinas, communication is ultimately irreducible to its contents.

There’s more to be said about the issue of the digital interface as a site of ethics here, and about whether the site of Levinas’s saying, the thing that “says” which is called “the face” is shown in the same way online as in face-to-face communication. I think this might be to do with what Levinas calls the “nakedness” or “vulnerability” of the face, which is what I’m going to do a bit of reading* about this week.

*after some liberal use of the control-f function

The function of the click and Virtual/Virtue Ethics

I can… click away from a friend’s blog, without the price that must be paid for physically turning away from a face-to-face conversation.

This quote is from Shannon Vallor’s work on social networking and ethics (see Social Networking Technology and the Virtues, Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (2): 157-70 . Vallor  has written the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for this subject – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-social-networking/). Charles Ess refers to it in Digital Media Ethics (2014), which is a textbook I’ve been reading the last couple of days. The context is a discussion of how virtue ethics provides a relevant ethical framework for thinking about moral actions in digitally-mediated encounters. It’s got me thinking about the click as a mechanism, but also as a symbol. It is one of the concepts which works as a shorthand for activity online, and as such deserves a bit of deconstruction.

The “click” is constantly referred to in works which ask what the ethical significance of digital interaction is. There is a sense in the reference to the “click” that online activity is bounded by it, defined by it, and that to “click” is often a careless, or ethically weightless, action. To privilege the ‘click’ in descriptions of the ethics of online activity I think does two things. Firstly, it establishes a digital dualism, the notion that online or immaterial activity is experientially and morally separate from offline or material activity. In emphasizing this particular interface effect (we need to click to work the ubiquitous interface of the computer operating system) the ethical discussion focuses not on the relational nature of the encounter between a user and the interface, but only on the mechanism which allows us to navigate it. In reality, online activity has become extremely complex, and is not easily disentangled from the rest of lived experience; indeed, it is a huge portion of everyday activity in many societies. Focusing on only one albeit significant element of that activity, the mouse, means that the description of such complex textual activities as reading, replying, messaging, typing and retyping, composing, is reduced. Language and relationality is erased in an ethical discussion which puts the “click” in the foreground. The function of the click has become simultaneously the motif of instantaneity and of the apparent ethical ephemerality of digital interaction.

To say a click is not the same as turning your face to another person is perhaps not too hard to argue. But if so, at the same time it must be acknowledged that “clicking away” is not the same as turning your face away from someone. The click is a function of intention, which has to be seen as just one element of the mediated encounters between people via digital interfaces. Just because the function which allows me to traverse the interface is near-instantaneous, and relies on an embodied movement which is getting more effortless (we now tap, swipe, even look at the interface to create action) does not mean that the textual ends of that function are defined by the same apparent lack of friction. The reading of the click as a somehow ethically hollowed-out function or an a-ethical procedure relies on the notion that online activity is somehow divorced from offline activity. To put this in the context of the initial quotation, my friend will know if I have not read their blog post (or if I disagree with it) when they ask me next time we meet, or when they message me asking what I thought. There are questions here about how people pay attention to other people online, and how friendship is similar-but-different in mediation via and interface. But the answers to these should understand that the click is a surface element, a nexus in which disparate elements temporarily merge: the affordances provided by the interface, the intentions of the person(s) interacting via the interface, and the variety of embodied actions which communicates such intention (typing, looking, navigating and re-navigating, linking, posting, sharing). If the click is to be thought of as an ethical act, it must be considered in the context of the interface before the context of the face-to-face. In other words, it must be viewed as a component of virtual ethics before it is considered a practice for virtue ethics.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Connection”

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been working on Zadie Smith, writing a draft of a chapter about the digital interfaces in NW. I’ve come to that classic post-structuralist conclusion of “I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that” with regard to the function of digital interfaces in the novel. One critic suggests that such interfaces play with connection and disconnection in the text, but there’s an obvious problem with this reading. It relies on the idea that digital interfaces engender a capacity for “connection” or “disconnection”, rather than something more detailed, more complex, something in-between. To put it another way, saying that a person (or a character in a book) is either connected or disconnected  is reductive of the experience of using such interfaces.

“Connect” comes from the Latin to bind together; the use of the term to imply a physical unity or a form of relationship between two entities is present from the late 19th century. The idea that “connection” describes something that is “meaningful” doesn’t occur until mid-way through the twentieth century, having become part of the language of telephone communication. (NB: I am again painfully aware that I not yet read Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book. Sorry Kev, who first recommended it, like, a year ago. And Avital, obviously.) In contemporary use, the term connect is over-determined. It suggests a meaningful relationship with someone else, but the antonym disconnect can describes a way of switching your attention from a computer to another person in order to give them more of your time. Talking in terms of connect/disconnect establishes a binary opposition, one that reinforces the concept of digital dualism (that the virtual world is distinct, radically different from and subservient to the material world). All that happens when using a digital interface is that we are connected – the concept gives no sense of the process of the interface, or the interface effects which happen while engaging with it. This stuff is hidden by the term “connect”. There is no sense, phenomenological or otherwise, of the detailed interactions which happen when using the interface, because the act which requires the least agency is privileged.

This (dead) metaphorical reference contains within it an ideological structure. If it is understood that it is possible to be in a state of disconnection rather than connection, then this disconnection can be linked to a time prior to ubiquitous digital interfaces. This means that connection can be nostalgically contrasted with a pre-Lapsarian state of disconnection (see Sherry Turkle and her desire for us to all go read Thoreau in a wood) which establishes a moral and political frame for the denigration of contemporary technology. The same can be said for the technophilic desire to think of connection as the ultimate transcendence (see William Gibson’s Neuromancer which is referenced in basically every book on digital technology ever) which then pushes a scientific ethic of progress and development – just as disturbing. (Consider that many instances of literary utopia/dystopia are predicated on visions of total of connection.)

These terms were once used to describe a change in a physical state, and then evolved to describe a change in behaviour. It suggested we acted differently in front of a digital interface – that our experiences were somehow flat, or not inflected by bodies. These changes don’t occur in the same way anymore when it comes to digital interfaces. Cities with ubiquitous digital interfaces and a high percentage of citizens with Internet access experience online discourse as a part of mundane, everyday experience. The notion of connection/disconnection which still remains is a dangerous fiction, one which is often reinscribed by the critique of digital interfaces in art and public life. It negates the power of digital interfaces as a mode of social and political expression, because it suggests that a) using digital interfaces is a flat, standard experiences common to all technical platforms; b) that the experience of digital interfaces is somehow outside of the material realm and is not an experience which relies on, say, access, privilege or class; and c) it undermines the validity of discourse through these interfaces by positing the disconnected state as the privileged mode for serious or “meaningful” discourse.

I’m probably assuming too much about the presence of these terms in criticism, media, popular culture etc but a brief internet search will provide results for a host of articles, positive and negative, referring to the totalizing fictions of connection/disconnection. What none of those articles will make reference to is that the way one uses the interface – whether or not you use Google or DuckDuckGo for that internet search, for instance – is vastly more significant to thinking about the important things, politics and class, than whether or not someone is “connected”.  The concept of connection and disconnection as total states for digital interfaces is part of a language which denies difference and minimizes the potential for radical platforms. You are not merely “connected” or “disconnected” – you are doing all manner of things which involve agency, special understanding, community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

race/ anonymity/ porn – Ethics and the Internet in Zadie Smith’s NW

I’m starting some work on Zadie Smith this summer, specifically her novel NW (2012). It seems to me to be the first attempt by a British author to directly address what it means to use the Internet, or to communicate digitally, and to ask (if only partially) how digital forms lead to a recalibration of ethical boundaries (or an augmenting of the possible acts available to us). This work comes after my draft first chapter, where I was trying to pick a route through digitality, literary ethics, modernism and twenty-first century literature, to set up a critical foundation from which to proceed. It tried to do too much at once – obviously – but the process was useful at least.

Part of what I was attempting to say in that first bit of writing, though, was that it is valuable to think about stuff written in the twenty-first century through the prism of the technological. Looking at texts from the modernist period in this way – Virginia Woolf, Henry James – highlights some important cultural conflicts, political anxieties and ethical concerns. Modernist writers were attempting to transcribe, translate or put into a form the relationship that society had with new mechanical and electrical stuff which created new ways of seeing the world. And there was a politics of expression that went along with that – which meant that a modernist perspective was often coupled with an acceptance that new technologies couldn’t be shunned, but must be understood, seen as an essential part of the cultural fabric, maybe even worshipped. Smith’s novel is one that understands this impulse. The difference in the contemporary period is that the technology, the new thing, is not only mechanical or electronic but the digital.

NW is a novel that testifies to the ubiquitous nature of digital interactions. It confirms the centrality of digital forms to many elements of lived experience. Most simply, mentions of digital forms of communication are littered throughout the book, as might be expected of the realist mode in which Smith tends to write. Characters get out their phones, look at websites, sit at laptops. The ills of technology are drably agreed upon during a dinner party by faceless guests.

Critically, a digital form of communication works as a central plot device, creating perhaps the defining moment of conflict in a novel which is generally more interested in the quotidian or the points when characters notice time passing. The central character, who changes her name from Keisha to Natalie, performs a sexual transgression which is primarily a digital one. In a section knowingly entitled Love in the ruins, she cheats on her husband with two young men in a “50s semi” in Wembley, facilitated by a “listings” website, on which she is known by the handle WildInWembley and her email address is KeishaNW. The freedom Keisha/Natalie finds in this particular form of communication is that of temporarily leaving her role as head of household and “big lady jesus” lawyer. Having changed her name once, the textual avatars she uses online refer back to her previous identity. In one sense, the online space provides a place where Keisha can perform an identity that she feels she can no longer materially embody – she has moved on too far from her family and her upbringing. At the same time, in the “listings” website she is “BF [black female] 18-35” – she becomes a sought after sexual fantasy, a racially-defined fetish for couples and naive young men. “Why?” asks the narrative “What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want?” This, however, is as far as the narrative goes in questioning the racial biases of the “listings” website. Keisha turns up at the house of drug addicts, and then later a moneyed bourgeois couple – on both occasions the sex is cancelled, the first because the couple are too high, and the second because Keisha is not able to, in that moment, satisfactorily separate her status as fetish from her life as Natalie, the professional.

There is more to be said about the extant presentation of digital forms in this novel, not least the fact that Keisha’s use of the website is a) described in flat, quotidian terms (“She went to the website. She went to bed”) which perhaps reflects a complacent, liberal understanding of the Internet as a utopian space. There is also the Chat Roulette used by the men that Keisha engages in sexual activity with, whom she chastises (“Boys, boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here.”)The political dimensions of the digital forms seem essentially flat, impotent. “Look, there is raceanonymity, and porn online” the text seems to say, “isn’t it terrible?”

I’ll finish this piece about my initial ideas with what I think is the most important engagement with digitality in the novel, a chat dialogue between Keisha and Leah which is printed in the text itself. From one perspective, it’s just another epistolary gimmick (Exhibit B being Smith’s On Beauty, where she re-imagines the opening letter of Howards End as an e-mail). But I would argue the effect is more radical than that, that there is evidence that this particular passage says a lot about the different ways of seeing that this particular digital form facilitates and how they are transformed when it is fixed into the pages of a print novel:

shut it blake
That’s just so fucking FASCINATING
Hello hanwell DARLING. What brings you to the internets this
fine afternopn
noon
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
delighteful.

 
This can be viewed as rupturing the form of the novel, because it cancels the normally ever present omniscient-third-person voice, one which is highlighted in ironic asides or philosophical observations. It becomes absence here, where in the rest of the novel it is either explicit or dropped into at certain moments. As such, the computer-mediated-communication, the tangible presence of this particular layout, this peculiar form, emphasises the absence of the controlling, omniscient voice. It becomes an ethical encounter which lacks the mediating presence of the novel. Any mediation or distance between the reader and characters comes in the form of the permanent appearance of a normally permeable (or alterable) textual form – the chat dialogue. It is in the midst of these textual tensions that an important ethical question is raised:

 

[…}
lady jesus I am getting married
!!!!!?????
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests
I’m really happy for you seriously
Actual guests.
Iz for mum really.
right
also, I really love him.
lust him.
Important to him and he wants to.
It’s what people do innit.
sorry clerk one min
enough reasons?

The important ethical question, although one of privilege and bourgeois choice – should I marry this man – is never answered by Keisha, and the reader might choose to assume the veracity of her need to suspend the conversation for work. (Incidentally, both characters are at work, in the kind of jobs which afford them basically unobstructed internet access. I can’t work out what to say about this yet past the fact that internet is not a magical world but another aspect of material living conditions from which you can be alienated/prevented from accessing). Keisha couldn’t answer her phone, so Leah tells her using an instantaneous message. Later, the irony of the speed of the message is emphasized when she complains that the two of them are getting old. A moment of life-changing significance – one which a reader might explain a realist novel to make more of – happens instantly – should-I-get-married is not, “a different kind of moment” as Leah describes the Kierkegaardian “instant” earlier in the novel. The mediated nature of their interaction influences the ways there are of reading their relationship, changes the ethical possibilities available for knowing their relationship. For example, when Keisha asks Leah about having children, her emoji response changes the texture of the exchange:

[…]

Does this mesn
Mean procreation??
FUCK OFF WOMAN
🙂
FUCK OFF WITH YOUR SMILEY FACE

The emoji shifts the mode signification – it’s a familiar element of internet discourse, but it’s unfamiliar when fixed in the pages of a novel. Face, and the presentation of the face as an important element of the way that human beings relate to each other, is foregrounded here, as it is throughout the novel. The smiley face of Keisha is, perhaps, an over-determined signifier. It appears to represent her inarticulacy, and her desire to mask seriousness with humour, yet it also tells us she has an understanding of internet culture and language patterns (she welcomes Leah to “the Internets” earlier in this section). Leah’s reaction is comic, but also neutralizes the seriousness of the question which is then not addressed again – a question which is arguably the ethical dilemma which defines Leah’s character. The smiley alters the ethical terrain of the interaction – and the two characters suppress or change the direction of the conversation. The digital format of this interaction means the effects of it are stark, because the ethical ground on which it happens is unfamiliar.

Much more could be said about this passage, in terms of its poetics, the way that the text-as-novel consciously manipulates the form of the communication (the knowing line breaks, the lack of time stamps, the switching between standard and non-standard English, the asynchronicity of the communication , the presence or absence of a Levinasian version of the face). But I’d best stop, and start reading again.