Locating the Literary in New Media

Locating the Literary in New Media

2008-09-23
Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America
Martin Kevorkian
Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006
Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2008
My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts
N. Katherine Hayles
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005
The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory
Thomas Foster
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005

Joseph Tabbi surveys four recent interventions into new media studies, and argues that literary critics should not forget the power of the written word to resist the circumscribed possibilities of the current mediasphere.

Brian Lennon:

One reason, perhaps, to discontinue “speaking of a specifically American literary tradition uniquely suited to the critique of technology and modernity” might be to withdraw the license this provides, *even as a critical diagnosis,* for further inward-gazing appropriations of the sort this essay elsewhere so articulately resists. Is it really unthinkable that the entire intellectual tradition of U.S. exceptionalism, in all of its right, liberal, and leftish versions, will someday be decisively shadowed by imperial decline?

2009-02-04
Lori Emerson:

While this critique is true perhaps of Hayles’ My Mother Was a Computer, a wider sample of Hayles’s work - especially her most recent collection of essays Electronic Literature - reveals just this kind of use of the literary to read the technological. In Electronic Literature Hayles urges us to read electronic literature not as reflecting but rather “reflecting upon the media from which it springs” (88).

2008-11-10
Dave Ciccoricco:

Indeed, the technology of the telegraph and its institutions are with us today, though no longer under Western Union’s name, which suspended the service indefinitely in 2006. Today, there are a handful of companies that will do you a telegram (some arriving after Western Union’s departure), to some extent revisioning its role as a priority messaging system with a touch of old world charm. (In New Zealand, business clients can have a courier-delivered telegram for the primary purpose of debt recovery). These services are arguably vestigial, banking off nostalgia more than anything else.

2009-02-09
Brian Lennon:

Regarding the demand for “close attention to what’s stable and continuous”: The point is a solid one, of course.

2009-02-04
Brian Lennon:

Again, while this is fine and correct praise for Kirschenbaum’s method and its achievements, in this book, it also reminds us, perhaps, of the ethico-critical problem posed by Foucault’s discursive histories, in their basically descriptive restriction to the *partial* world enclosed by Euro-Atlantic modernity. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s early analysis (in the widely cited essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”) of the consequences of Foucault’s refusal of ideology critique remains apposite here, as does the engagement with technology and media studies throughout her work.

2009-02-04

This review also appears in the Summer 2008 issue (Vol. 49, no. 2) of Contemporary Literature.

Only in North American academia would the first three titles listed above have appeared before the fourth. Only here would “culture” be the first thing literary scholars think of writing about when confronted with a transformation in the material media of our own practice. Works of literature are cited in these first three books, occasionally as participants in the transformation but more often as casualties or, at best, as well-crafted, all-too-human expressions of what it feels like to live through the transformation. Race in Thomas Foster and Martin Kevorkian, gender in N. Katherine Hayles, and class in all three are given early and articulate expression, a sign that humanities scholarship, for better or worse, has learned to move in step with the changes wrought by technology, new liberal economics, and new media communication. Innovations in commercial technologies, it seems, have given a Second Life to academic cultural studies, allowing scholarship to continue its exploration of any and every human, posthuman, and animal (but only occasionally mineral) implication of our ever-changing, ever-diversifying, ever-present and determinedly “contemporary” culture. As the embrace of informatics and instructional models in classrooms has been, arguably, an outcome of professors’ exclusion from boardroom and backroom politics, the fascination with technoculture seems to have distanced humanities scholars from even our former object of interest - not the book, nor its successor media, but the literary imagination as it is constrained and enabled by technology.

Kevorkian, writing on relations of race and technoculture, understands what it might mean for humanists to want to put technology in a “black box,” but only Matthew G. Kirschenbaum offers a clear alternative to cultural containment strategies. Still, one won’t find much literature on offer in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. By the time we have this groundbreaking, clear-eyed look at the actual mechanisms at work in literary production, the discussion has already moved past print authors to designers of computer games and the “born digital” work of Michael Joyce and William Gibson - Agrippa, not Gibson’s literary and science fiction, not the “cyberculture” that Thomas Foster (in The Souls of Cyberfolk) finds everywhere (in “posthuman speculations” about the technological modification of bodies, cyborg feminism, “sexy robots” in Japanese and North American visual art, cross-racial performances, Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk album of 1992, the franchising of nationhood in globalization discourse, and much else). The ubiquity of cyberculture is a reinscription not of print literature (its metaphors, visions, representations, and phrasings) but rather of “specific categories of postmodern theory” (Foster xxviii). Theory - not fiction, not poetry, not the wide-ranging cultural essay or editorial - has become the new “vernacular” of popular culture. We might find “literariness” circulating through the mediasphere, but rarely references to literature; “fictionality,” but not fictions; “autopoiesis,” but not much poetry.

Or perhaps it’s there, and we just don’t have the tools or skills or cast of mind to see it. Gibson’s three-hundred-line text is listed in Kirschenbaum’s bibliography, after all, as “Available online - everywhere,” so if it’s literature we want, all we should need to do is go there (269). Go anywhere, follow the links, and the literary will emerge in its own good time. Or if typing URLs and visiting Web sites is by now “old world,” we can set up a Rich Site Summary (RSS) to bring the literary to us, 24/7. RSS: it’s “really simple,” we’re told by new media artist Kate Armstrong.In her essay “Feeds and Streams: RSS Poetics,” Armstrong introduces “some of the foremost writers, thinkers and artists working today in the field of digital literature” (see links below). The possibility of having graphics and images sent to the reader, rather than the reader going in search of works, is just one instance of the deep transformation not in narrative as such but in readerly and institutional expectations of what a literary experience might be. The recognition that what we are experiencing today is less a transformation, twilight, or obsolescence of literature and more a shift in institutional constructions of the literary object is a theme in recent work by the narrative theorist Daniel Punday, in essays published in ebr (see links below) and also in his book manuscript, “Five Strands of Fictionality: The Institutional Construction of Contemporary American Writing” (in progress). Perhaps. But the ubiquity of Agrippa, the work we happen upon here in Kirschenbaum, is not the most reassuring sample because, paradoxically, this particular text was initially supposed to disappear the moment it was read, its lines erasing themselves one by one with no recovery possible. Agrippa: A Book of the Dead was presented, ostensibly, as a prescient allegory of the literary text’s disappearance within a media environment that, in 1992, was still emerging, still a place of experimentation, where one could still take a crack at breaking codes (without undue fear of bringing the Feds to your door), where personae could proliferate, files could be shared, flames could erupt spontaneously, even on fledgling departmental listservs and literary sites such as SUNY-Buffalo’s poetics listserv (now restricted mostly to announcements and promos, the life taken out of it by a flame war waged by newcomers against its long-standing membership in the late 1990s). Viral marketing in the Agrippa period could solidify a literary reputation overnight. In this pre-MOSAIC era of text-only protocols (“Telnet, USENET, IRC, MOO/MUD, Finger, Gopher, FTP”[Kirschenbaum 231]), literary authors might still dream that an electronic creativity would be recognizably textual. In those days, all cultural activity was “alt” (alternative) by virtue of the absence of publication venues and the bare-bones simplicity of interfaces. “Read ‘Agrippa’ now,” says Kirschenbaum, “and go back to the archives of MindVox, FutureCulture, and alt.cyberpunk, and gradually one begins to find that this electronic text has acquired its own set of indexical relations; the…sparse Courier type in which, often as not, the poem still manifests and the lush graphical interfaces of the contemporary browsers that are now its support is a material connection to the bitbrittle world of bulletin boards, codes, ‘philes,’ and ‘warez’ that defined the network prior to the commercial advent of the Web” (230).

It seems debatable to me whether those “lush graphical interfaces” serve materially to “connect” or irrevocably to distance the majority of users from the “mechanisms” that, according to Kirschenbaum, both facilitate and constrain possibilities for imaginative writing in new media. Not least, the insistence that media must always be kept perpetually “new” has, paradoxically, placed the literary imagination in a situation of continual nostalgia, since the two- or three- or five- or six-year period when any given media environment prevails allows at most the production of two or three or five accomplished works of literature before one’s audience has moved on to the next set of upgrades, the network has rearranged its protocols, and the next set of works appears, rendering previous works, if not inoperable, then classics before their time. As with Agrippa or Joyce’s Afternoon, many works are canonized before they have been read, resisted, and reconsidered among fellow authors within an institutional environment that persists in time and finds outlets in many media. In principle, literary writers can learn individually to take precautions against technological obsolescence by following best practices outlined by Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin in a pamphlet circulated by the Electronic Literature Organization.Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, “Acid Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature,” July 2005; available in print and online (see links below). Authors can stick with open-source platforms and work close to low-level programming languages (rather than patching together somebody else’s subroutines or working with whatever commercial package is “bundled” into their desktop). But is it realistic to suppose that authors themselves, any more than consumers, can counter both the culture of conformism in the interface and widespread illiteracy at the level of programming?

By way of contrast to a commercial culture whose users are kept constantly attending to interfaces and answering to instructions while remaining fundamentally in “ignorance of the machine,” Martin Kevorkian cites Donald Knuth’s long in-process “magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming (1968- )” (157). One need not agree with Knuth that programs themselves ought to be considered works of literature.As a nonprogrammer, I would not enter this debate, although John Cayley’s formulation seems sensible to me: “The Code Is Not the Text (Unless It Is the Text)” (see links below). Cayley keeps open the possibility that authors whose work involves programming will on occasion give to code the same attention they might have given to the material of print media and have that level of self-consciousness be recognized by critics and scholars. But if we are serious about creating a literary culture in new media, then scholars need to insist, with Knuth, Kevorkian, and Kirschenbaum, that scholars can, and ought to, devote the kind of close attention to what’s stable and continuous in computing that we give to the formation of tendencies, periods, and canons in literary and cultural fields. Without that stable grounding in materials and “mechanisms,” our so-called cyberculture does seem doomed to be either always catching up with the technology of the day or looking back in nostalgia at those few, mostly performative, and rarely reproduced moments when a given culture appears, briefly, to coalesce. The community that formed around Afternoon and the Eastgate publishing group brought out the first, and only, generation of stand-alone hypertexts, until the genre’s pretensions to open-endedness and interactivity were challenged (notably by the critic Espen Aarseth, who pointed out that readers were often more constrained by hypertexts than by the codex book in how they might follow a narrative sequence).Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives in Ergodic Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997). The accumulation around Agrippa of an “indexical layer of associations” is, for Kirschenbaum, at least as important “as the poetry” in making this work not only lasting but continually “compel[ling]” (231). Agrippa was, in fact, as much a work of participatory, conceptual art as it was poetry, starting with its original “transmission” from The Kitchen in downtown Manhattan and even earlier (since those who had already cracked the work’s code were sufficiently cooperative to wait for the Kitchen event before releasing the smuggled text, knowing that their own hackwork would benefit from the opening’s publicity). Both Agrippa and Eastgate’s brand of “serious hypertext” are reflective of their own aesthetics and of their culture, insofar as they bring forward networks of storage and transmission that were then current but commercialized only later, and in forms that lost as much in participatory potential as they gained in user-friendliness.

Recovering that potential, not solely or even primarily for archival purposes but for present use, is the promise of a “forensic” criticism, a practice that brings home long-standing concerns with the media and materialities of written communication. Media-minded scholars who placed such concerns on the literary agenda a decade ago (among them Hayles, Friedrich Kittler, William Paulson, and Hans Ulrich Gombrecht) thought that the literary qualities of new media might be found, like the missing body in a detective novel, in the actual technical inscriptions right there on the millions of hard drives, floppies, cassettes, sticks, and other items that writers have been using, shelving, occasionally storing, but mostly throwing away, thinking these things were mere residuals, incidental to the real work - the programmable poem, the hypertext novel, the essay or installation or interactive fiction that would reach its stable form at publication. But when was publication ever separate from acts of transmission that precede and (if successful) extend well beyond the work’s first appearance in public? And when were such transmissions ever under the control of the individual author, rather than subject to variations within a collaborative network of editors, typesetters, designers, salespeople, distributions centers, and so forth? Kirschenbaum finds, in the unlikely field of “forensics,” the one cultural territory that actually has a more than theoretical bearing on the creation and circulation of literary creativity. Not only are the “flickering signifiers” on our screens more stable and permanent than humanities scholars might have thought, but the material substrates for textual storage and transmission are more creative than we might have imagined.

Significant in this respect is Kirschenbaum’s choice of the word “indexical,” rather than “reflective” or “metaphorical,” when describing Agrippa’s relation to media culture and our possible relation, as scholars, to such a partially, potentially literary object. Kirschenbaum takes the term “indexical” from Charles Sanders Peirce, whose semiotics would describe “an essentially physical (rather than merely mimetic) relationship to an original referent” (230). In keeping with this semiotic and informatic approach, Kirschenbaum’s close reading of Agrippa is concerned scarcely at all with the semantic content of the poem, but rather with those variations in its transmission that embed the work materially in the media world. The one passage cited for extended consideration is concerned with a “material mark” in the poem’s final lines that “sometimes appear[s] like this”:

laughing,
in the mechanism.

.

“The final dot,” Kirschenbaum notes, “is not a typo, nor is it an act of authorial punctuation.” The dot was “most likely used in early electronic mail software to transmit the ASCII version of the poem” (231). To separate an operative signal from noise is not only the goal of information science but also, Kirschenbaum reminds us, the foundation of modern bibliographic studies in its concern with the transmission of literary texts. Kirschenbaum cites essentially all modern textual scholars on this point, from his University of Virginia mentor, Jerome McGann, back through Randall McLeod, Fredson Bowers, and W. W. Greg, who in 1932 stated, “at the root of all literary criticism lies the question of transmission, and it is bibliography that enables us to deal with the problem” (qtd. in Kirschenbaum 214). Kirschenbaum argues - implicitly, through case studies, rather than polemically - that such an informatic, forensic approach is as relevant today as ever, and even more so as the devices for storage and routes of literary transmission are multiplied by computers and carried by expanding networks of communication. What Kirschenbaum does not say (though McGann has said so in an essay published in 2007) is that the rise of cultural studies in literature, and even the recent turn toward affect and materiality in cultural discourse, has for the most part proceeded separately from the cybernetic “infrastructure” that now supports the production even of books.Jerome McGann, “The Way We Live Now: What Is to Be Done?” (see links below). Scarcely registering at all in our leading cultural debates is the digitization of our reedited print heritage.Commenting on a gathering of “[s]ome of the most distinguished” of literary and cultural theorists at the University of Chicago in April 2005, McGann found much agreement about “the malaise that had grown widespread in the humanities” but no recognition whatsoever concerning “the degree of ignorance about information technology and its critical relevance to humanities education and scholarship.” In recent years, I have noticed that courses in bibliography have fallen out of the English graduate curriculum in all but a few universities. Their loss is at least as debilitating for the profession as the watering down of second-language requirements (in a period of increased contact with nonnative English-speaking cultures), and for that matter the dropping of Old English (which, like Latin, helped scholars and writers to see linguistic innovation as larger, and more deeply rooted, than that quirky, individual “voice” that students are coached to find in creative writing courses and that identity politicians discover while campaigning). What professors of literature are jettisoning from the curriculum, it seems, are precisely those disciplinary forms that would allow us to enter both the media and world culture on terms specific to our own practice as writers.

At the very moment when our practice as literary scholars is moving away from its most concrete material tradition of bibliographic scholarship and a grounding discipline in diverse languages, faculty are routinely provided with ever more powerful machines that we are expected to understand less and less. In spring semester 2008, I counted seventeen monitors and twenty-two CPUs crowding the corridors outside the tech office awaiting recycling - or more likely a stint “leaking lethal heavy metals into the groundwater of the developing countries that buy them as scrap” (Hayles 63, paraphrasing Robert Markley). That is the refuse of one three- to five-year generation of computer use in a single department in one university in the United States. What actually goes on in the computers during their time online is increasingly constructed, as Martin Kevorkian reminds us, as a “black box” that users are encouraged to “think outside” of, as if material ignorance were a prerequisite to creativity (rather than being what such ignorance is, namely abjection to preset conditions for use). Except for a cadre of published authors who have made very specific, largely unsupported efforts at individually mastering open-source programming and custom design, as a profession, we are growing ever more distant from the signifying elements in the computers we use mostly for word processing, e-mail correspondence, administrative tasks, and occasional preparation of Web pages. Instead of constituting a college of authors, literary academics have become, and are increasingly treated as, a cast of middle managers, our expertise, insofar as we deal with machines, reduced to following instructions.

And those who service the machines? Like most literature faculty in North American universities, I have no bibliographers or specialists in humanities computing working with me. Those potential colleagues, few in number, are more likely to set up centers and programs of their own, elsewhere. I meet technologically literate colleagues through organizations and at conferences, not at home. For the most part, professors of literature collaborate on technology not with colleagues but with low-wage, part-time information “specialists,” many of whom (not coincidentally, if we follow Kevorkian’s arguments) are dark-skinned, young males. “Tech support” in United States academia comes generally from workers at call centers in India or another industrializing country, or from students and other casual laborers who increasingly populate university staffs and offices, helping to maintain a cross-racial student body without the promise of eventual full-time employment in the profession they have studied for. Frequently, support might come from computer science graduate students having a somewhat deeper knowledge of a range of systems, but since these students rarely take an advanced course in literature, the possible connections between their field and mine are never realized, beyond informal and rushed conversations that I might have over the course of a semester or a year, with Vidya (2000-2002), Kumar (2003-5), and Bharath and Sunil (2008). Others may have come and gone during one of my semesters off. Kumar, who graduated last year, sends me e-mail invitations to his art openings (the artist, not the gallery, is now expected to do the PR). The others, on graduation, go into corporate jobs, a few of which are professionalized, but none of these student workers will ever move into positions in the humanities, and very few will emerge as more than casual readers of literature.

During this same period, my graduate research assistants - Jenny from Colorado, Stefanie from Bremen, Germany, and Ben from rural Georgia - have variously picked up on technologies put in place by Ewan and Anne, the ebr programmer and designer, respectively, in Los Angeles. But the highly specialized, multiply literate training that we all pick up while producing an online journal is not formally recognized as a part of the students’ program of study. The research assistants, editors, and designers I’ve worked with rarely get much “digital dirt” under their fingernails - which doesn’t signal economic oppression or the coercive presence of a cultural elite. The tech team members from computer science are likely to command higher wages than the humanities research assistants after graduation. Instead of thinking in terms of political binaries such as oppressor and oppressed, elites and disadvantaged, we might better speak of different kinds of exclusion and inclusion within separate, interacting economic spheres. We might also, as McGann, Kirschenbaum, and others in the bibliographic traditions suggest, keep in mind the old Marxist distinction between base and superstructure and consider how the current, formal separation of technical work from literary research causes our discipline systematically to cut itself off from a potential source of renewed creativity - and this is the case whether or not universities have created actual “distance learning” programs in the humanities. The packaging of education as “information” and the pursuit of “excellence” in the context of casualized labor have done more than computers to distance professors and students from their own disciplines, as well as from their involvement in each other’s mental lives and professional development.

I offer this profile of graduate and undergraduate labor, in the place where I work, in support of the general cultural transformation that Kevorkian registers as “the black face of technology in America.” Given the ubiquitous concern in academia and in corporate culture with identity construction and the attention lavished on transgressive significations across racial, class, and gender boundaries, I find it remarkable how efficiently racism has expanded in the information age. Indeed, the “transformation” may be not all that different from the long-standing practice, in the United States, of displacing those labor-intensive, routine, seemingly noncreative activities that nobody wants to do onto the body of the black man. If, as novelist Ishmael Reed points out, the history of blacks in the United States has been “a history of containment,” then the call center or corporate cubicle is only the latest in a line of “enclosures, basketball courts, football fields, jails” (qtd. in Kevorkian 162). These are preferred sites of blackness in America, but there can be other, emerging sites, and new racial stereotypes, too, that help to naturalize a continuing racial divide. If “the image of the black computer expert” is a stereotype that you never really noticed, the chapters in Color Monitors can help correct that particular blindness.

My concern in this review essay, however, is not with that one cultural image, which Kevorkian presents definitively and with wit and variety. Of more specific concern to my own discipline of contemporary literature is the specifically literary counterimage that Kevorkian offers as a coda to his book. Alone among the studies here under review, Color Monitors presents a possible contemporary tradition, a “coherent counterweb to a cyberphobic imagination” that is notable for its medial diversity as much as for its mix of racial and cultural identities (140). “[W]hether published with turntables or on the Internet, in sci-fi pulp editions or literary hardbacks,” the literary authors presented in the final chapter of Kevorkian’s book can be said to follow an established, tech-savvy tradition in American fiction that neither demonizes technology nor equates technological development with cultural progress. Kevorkian’s governing conceit would have to be Ralph Ellison’s vision of the “invisible” black man, poaching power from the electronic grid and finding there, among circuits and “lower frequencies,” an authentic voice that is capable not of mere self-expression but of speaking “for you,” in full awareness of the range of expression in American literary fiction - Ralph Waldo Emerson no less than Ralph Waldo Ellison, Melville’s Confidence Man no less than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Man Who Was a Thing” (as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was once subtitled). Equally central to this vision is Octavia Butler’s recognition of “cyber-access not as a threat or discomfort, but as a privilege and an urgently needed power” (qtd. in Kevorkian 149). The transformative power of such fiction does not come merely from the inclusion of previously excluded identities (itself an endless project, since new identities always bring with them new invisibilities, unidentified multitudes for society to exclude, even as new markets often coexist with or even depend on black markets and illegal, simply casual, and variously migratory labor). Rather than the endless expansion of markets and identities typical of the new liberal economic regime, and in contrast to the current overproduction of both popular entertainments and academic publications, the literary countertradition identified by Kevorkian, in its various attempts at “thinking inside the black box,” seeks to know the mechanisms that both constrain expression and create alternative possibilities.

It is worth listing the authors in Kevorkian’s counterweb, to give an idea of what a literary response to the new liberal technoculture might look like: Thomas Pynchon; Richard Powers; Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky; That Subliminal Kid; Jane Smiley; Mary Anne Breeze, a.k.a. Mez; Talan Memmott; Brian Lennon; John Cayley; and Walter Mosley. That Pynchon is known for keeping his personal identity in wraps; that Powers in his most evidently autobiographical fiction offers a version 2.2 of his authorial self; that Memmott in his “Self-Portrait(S) [as Other(s)]” uses programming to remix his name, his biography, and his aesthetic practice with those of, for example, Eduard Mannet, Edgar van Gogh, Paul Monet, Jacques-Luis Gaugin, and so forth; that two on the list are “also known as” - each of these authorial positionings gives a different twist to identity as a marker within technological environments. Rewriting and recombination could well be the predominant aesthetic of the cybernetic era. The digital reconstruction of the literary is also in some ways a continuation of the practice of self-fashioning, with its long and robust history in American literature, from the founding of an American tradition based on a revisioning of European and classical predecessors to postmodern experimentalism. What is available for revisioning now, it would seem, is the entire legacy of printed literatures, and if that legacy is no longer solely or primarily transatlantic, the fundamentally transformative attitude toward this body of work represents an expansion of “American” practice consistent with the modernization of cities and communication infrastructures worldwide.

In general, I speak of a world system, not systems, and I similarly understand global society as having emerged in the singular and without a specific geographical location. Nonetheless, whether explicitly or implicitly, this system, for most conceptual writers, has an address and headquarters in the United States of America. While cosmopolitan critics such as Fredric Jameson, Friedrich Kittler, Niklas Luhmann, and Immanuel Wallerstein may be less vocal than, say, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri about the distinctively American nature of contemporary empire, America’s multiracial promise and technological priority, if not its fumbling leadership in these areas post-9/11, offer a common backdrop for an emerging world systems theory. While most theorists today present their work under the rubric of “cultural” or “critical” rather than “American” studies, I see no reason not to continue speaking of a specifically American literary tradition uniquely suited to the critique of technology and modernity. Certainly the disposition toward all that is “new,” and a certain faith in what comes “next,” is entirely in the American grain, and the authors here under review rarely question either the need for keeping up-to-date or the U.S.-centeredness of their sample. N. Katherine Hayles and Thomas Foster write mostly of works produced within their home country, and these works embrace quite a diversity of topics, formal approaches, and media. (Hayles’s “Media specificity” appears to be the most recent gesture toward pluralism, although this term is no more likely to affect the longue durée of the current world system than have the established antisystemic group politics grounded in cultural, racial, and gender specificity.)In contrast to Hayles’s advocacy of a “media specificity” focused on aesthetic possibilities inherent in each and every technological medium chosen by an author, William Paulson, alone among cultural theorists, has urged his colleagues to bear in mind, when writing on new media, that the identity and specificity that counts, for cultural work, is its basis in written language: “the mediatic specificity of reading, writing, and of literature, their potential niche in the new mediasphere, lies in their being made of language, which is a virtually universal human possession” (Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities ([Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001] 23). Note the willingness, on Paulson’s part, to recognize language and cognition as universals - and hence the possibility that scholarship might enter the new media environment while resisting the onslaught of ever more, ever newer technologies as the primary topics for literary and cultural study. That distinctively American strain of writing, engaged in technology but never equating a developed technical complexity with cultural progress, seems missing in the exemplary works of contemporary literature cited by Hayles and Foster, while the presence of nonliterary and popular works has increased markedly, beyond what would have been expected even a few years ago, in academic press publications in the humanities. This topical expansion is not, in my opinion, cause for celebration.

Where Kevorkian outlines the continuing power of racism and strategies of “black containment” in the new liberal technocratic sphere, Hayles offers an equally valuable, and similarly expansive, narrative of the “continuing force of gender hierarchies” (85), while Foster (following Harryette Mullen and others) traces a “specific racial history of the expropriability of ‘soul’ ” that reaches its broadest expression in contemporary cyberculture (xxiii). Both studies present cybernetic literature as a way of “contest[ing],” in Foster’s terms, the gendered and “racial mappings of social space by emphasizing the value of a cosmopolitan practice of living together, in proximity to difference” (206). Yet one discovers at best a cold proximity, and a rootless cosmopolitanism, in recent literary works cited in these books. The science fiction covered by Foster offers blackness “as a nostalgic memory, a reservoir, of an expressive subjectivity dependent on spatial distinctions between inner soul and outer body, mind and matter, distinctions that seem to be collapsing within today’s information networks and media-saturated environments” (3). Against the backdrop of a world system (singular and indifferent to the diversity it embraces), Foster encounters a plurality of “souls” expressive of everyday practices and freedoms in the mean streets and global marketplace of contemporary cultural theory. What one does not find in all this medial multiplicity and transgendered naughtiness are forms of presubjective, affective participation that literature and other arts traditionally have infused into social, sexual, and racial interactions across national and class boundaries. Without that affective dimension, which precedes subjectivity, very few people are likely to enjoy the freedoms and creative possibilities that Foster and Hayles locate in an emerging cybernetic cosmopolitanism which might transform the uniformly “blighted urban landscapes” in cybernetic fiction and increasingly at the periphery of developed cities worldwide.

A tolerance of racial difference without regard for differences in power and subjectivity is no lasting or deep basis for racial accord. Nothing can change, in relations among people of different races, if we expect to find only versions of ourselves in others: the opacity of others’ subjectivity is precisely what needs to be recognized and respected. Other minds remain separate and unavailable to us, even as our own thoughts and motivations extend beyond our conscious awareness. The study of language, the one medium available to all humans regardless of race, class, or gender, is valuable as a way of articulating these irreducible, internal differences. And it is the embodiment of language in media that allows such differences to be registered and developed by different readers at different times. As works of literature pass from author to author, from genre to genre, and (more often, recently) from one medium to another, nothing can change culturally unless words themselves and their evolving differences are held in the minds of successive generations of readers. Yet this subjective dimension of the work of literature is too often neglected in contemporary technocriticism. Words are taken not as the “virtually universal” medium that they might be (Paulson 23), but more or less as reference points for attitudes, gestures, and the built reality of a given era, interchangeable with images and sounds and available for remixing rather than citation. This inattention to subjective reality, to what Emily Dickinson calls the “internal difference, where the meanings are,” is the one mediatic specificity that is often lost in new media criticism. What we get, instead of a renewal of the literary, are rereadings that project current understanding onto the otherness of past traditions.

Consider, in contrast to Kevorkian’s grouping, the trajectory traced by Hayles in her consideration of “escape and constraint in the bodies of three fictions” - Henry James’s “In the Cage” (1898), Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and James Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), “a fiction whose title resonates with James’s girl in the cage” (65). Is the resonance intended? Is Tiptree’s story a reworking or rethinking of Henry James, or is it enough, to justify the pairing, that there is a woman, a network, and an economy of information in both stories? Elsewhere, we are told that Tiptree’s narrative, “as if in ironic reversal of James’s story,… plots to rescue Delphi from the realm of information” by placing this character in a wire mesh cage (81-82). But the question of whether Tiptree meant an allusion to James, or whether the resonance is supported by the text of the novel, never arises. The development of the technocultural context is enough, apparently, to create the “ironic reversal,” and here, as often in Hayles, the technological object, not the literary one, is complex and developmental.

More is at stake here than establishing the veracity of a single, rather obscure literary allusion. What seems to have fallen out of Hayles’s critical purview is the place of the literary in the technocultural developments that preoccupy her. Is contemporary criticism tracing a literary cultural development written into the changing technological environment, or has literary history been superseded by the march of technological progress? I find both tendencies present in contemporary technocriticism; what I would like to find is a third tendency, only occasionally on display in the works here under review, that neither insists on literary autonomy nor subordinates literary history to a dutiful registration of advances in technological complexity and their sociopolitical consequences. That third, distinctively literary tendency would be less a critique of the world or a celebration of technology than an extension of technological exploration using textual and narrative means. Paradoxically, that expansive and worldly cultural approach reveals itself more satisfyingly in a reading of Henry James than in the readings of contemporary science fiction and real-world cybernetic imaginings that otherwise preoccupy Hayles and Foster.

Hayles’s titular conceit derives from the observation that the word “computer” was used initially to designate the woman whose job it was to input data into early calculating machines, a functionary in possession of a necessarily minimal literacy. Granddaughter of the telegraph operator in the James story and a presence (for my generation) in TV shows from Green Acres through Lily Tomlin’s character in Laugh-in, this girl is most often treated comically, for exceeding her role as a passive transmitter of messages. In James’s story of 1898, however, the unnamed girl has already become something more than a figure of fun; she is a woman capable of using the machine at least momentarily to alter the terms of her condition. James’s story hinges on the introduction of an affective cognition within a technology designed to be neutral, and in this way the girl is able to contest not just the construction of her role as a passive transmitter but her own social construction. In the story, she becomes, through no active interest of her own, an object of desire for a naval captain, Everard, who uses her services and in due course shows an interest in her person. Differences of age, class, and gender make “casual prostitution” the most likely arrangement between the man and the girl, until she is momentarily placed in a position of unaccustomed power by the opportunity to alter a coded telegram from Lady Bradeen, the captain’s mistress. Although the office has destroyed the physical copy of the telegram, the girl is able “through a memory made eidetic by excitement” to reproduce the code for the (ever hard) captain and give him the message, slightly altered (Hayles 70). The girl’s affective response and her new sense of self-empowerment are shown by Hayles to be based on a historically new commodity, information, one that does not follow the economy of scarcity that characterizes her situation as an unmarried Victorian woman without independent means.

This intrusion of information into the “real” world of social and sexual arrangements makes the story, in Hayles’s view, a “prequel to the story of information in the twentieth century,” a period in which “information increasingly constitutes subjects and…the construction of reality itself” (71). The affective engagement with technology, and the exemption it brings from material and sexual economies, is only momentary, however: the captain, making use of the “stolen” message, marries Lady Bradeen, a mixed blessing for him since the lady possesses a fortune and he has only debts. The girl is no better served by her intervention, since her knowledge (if conveyed to others in the lady’s and the captain’s circles) would disturb the subtle outcome she has mediated. The information she “possesses” is of value to the girl only so long as she hoards it; like the body of a woman, the social value of information can be degraded if it is known to have been touched too often, by too many. The girl’s return to an economy of scarcity is marked by her decision no longer to postpone but to hasten her own marriage nearer her station in life (70). Hayles’s masterly analysis of the way informatics unconsciously and affectively shapes both the narrative and the social possibilities of every character in the story is a model for how an interest in older works of literature can reveal, in embryo, formations that only recently have “penetrated to the infrastructure of … society” (69). What such an approach offers, which is lacking in many fields of cultural studies, is a perspective capable of including nonhuman as well as human agents in the creation of a settled economy of information. The opening of that perspective is Hayles’s major accomplishment as a literary theorist, not a historian of technology, in the “posthuman” trilogy that began with How We Became Posthuman, continued through Writing Machines, and concludes with My Mother Was a Computer.

The analysis, however, seems to me to take another, less satisfying turn when Hayles follows the technological development to its present and more literal realization in the emergence of “intelligent machines” in the century after James and the further penetration of “information” into “the bodies of subjects” (71). At this point, literary history becomes something very closely connected to an account of technological development, turning James’s story into a “prequel,” not an alternative vision, and leading current authors to consciously follow a pattern laid out by technology - by taking, for example, “the next step…in which…markers are lost and there is no distinction between simulation and reality,” and the “focus… shifts from how the self expresses its agency to questions of who controls the machine” (79). Next steps, sequences, and simulations, produced according to preset patterns and controlling mechanisms: these are terms more appropriate to a technological development than a literary or cultural exploration. What is remarkable about the James story is its location of an affective and cognitive component within the technology of his day, a technology still with us in every Western Union office in every industrialized city in the world. (Even the wooden teller’s cage is still there at my bank branch - and the girl, too, always it’s a girl, but nowadays on Division Street in Chicago, she’s likely to be Hispanic.) Old technologies don’t disappear, and neither do they lose their world-shaping and world-sustaining power, even if they recede to the background. The popular imagination, by contrast, for all its spatial extension and complexity, is severely limited temporally: popular fiction knows only what is new and tends to see only those images that occupy whatever screen (film, video, computer, or handheld) happens to be dominant at the present moment. New technologies, even those now developed by the military (Star Wars is a case in point), too often are made subject to this selfsame popular imagination. Rarely do the technological objects that increasingly fascinate Hayles, developed for present commercial and military purposes, match the cognitive complexity of a literary or aesthetic object from the past. To cast those literary objects as a “prequel” to something else, something present in the world now, is thus a drastic reduction of literary complexity and a misrecognition of the persisting alternative that past literatures can uniquely provide.

The kind of unexpected cognitive shifts that one finds in literary fiction of the past can be obviated or can retreat into invisibility once the technological infrastructure is complete, the chances for intervention at the level of code are criminalized, and our options for self-presentation become mere selections from a menu. Embodiment as a consumer choice defines the scenario we encounter when Hayles goes on to discuss how the old, ill woman in Tiptree’s story is fitted out with the body of an attractive girl, Delphi, who “lives in a world of seemingly endless possibility, expansive in its glittering displays of wealth and privilege” (79). The topos is by now familiar, a variation on the subterranean morlocks of H. G. Wells, who feed nightly on pretty and innocent eloi farmed from the earth’s rich surface. We see this theme also in the androids of Philip K. Dick and in the simulated world of The Matrix, where healthy lives above-ground are merely the dreams of prostrate bodies whose energies are being tapped so that computers can generate these dreams (a trivial side product of the bodies’ real purpose, which is to go on working, and to expand their networking endlessly). We see it in The Sims and numerous other computer games, in which players conduct virtual characters through career choices, commodity purchases, and social networks. What we don’t get in these highly developed simulations is the cultivation of any capacity to imagine an alternative to the operations of simulation and commodity consumption.

Hayles is of course right to point out how, since the telegraph technology of James’s late nineteenth century, information has penetrated ever further into “the infrastructure of the society” and, it seems, the inner structure of human minds and brains (69). But the century-long progression and expansion of complexity, as presented by Hayles and Foster, is all on the side of information, not in the development of a literary tradition in which early works are held in the mind of an author during composition and made available to readers who might be encouraged to go back to the earlier work, to find there something more, and something other, than the reality constructed by information and technology. What we are shown in contemporary science fiction is not an alternative but rather a definitive expansion of technological complexity to the subjective field: “Finally it is not scarcity and market relations that are transformed, but the subjects who are constrained and defined by how they participate in them” (Hayles 86). Not participating in markets and informatics is not an option for Hayles. Perhaps it’s not an option for any of us any longer. But that inevitability does not make these objects, routes, and channels cognitively complex or aesthetically interesting. The realm of informatics, even if embodied in objects, routes, channels, and the bodily cage, however complex or ubiquitous, is still of a different order of complexity from the meanings and lifeways that find expression (without the need for projecting an explicit future) in literature and the arts.

A search for alternatives - for cognitive rather than commercial exchanges, for “participation” in the older, spiritual sense of the term, and not least for “new possibilities for resistance” - is conducted at length by Thomas Foster through an even wider range of “cyberpunk narratives and post-Fordist forms of political economy” (204). I recommend The Souls of Cyberfolk as a comprehensive contemporary history of the main complaint in the network/informational society. Foster’s thesis, following the mainstream success of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the going “vernacular” of postmodern theory, is convincing, and his examples are well presented: global society can be read, expansively, as a deterritorialized Americanization, with specific reference to cyberpunk and the repression of race as a primary expression of the technological denaturing of embodiment. With Kevorkian, and with Hayles, Claire Sponsler, Frederick Buell, and several other critics of what Manuel Castells calls “the informational city,” Foster has learned to look to the “urban landscape of decay” which, “wrecked though it is, offers…a playground of creative possibilities” (Sponsler, qtd. in Foster 205). Yet each time it comes down to a specific practice, policy, entertainment, or philosophical movement, the political consequences are mixed and the aesthetic pleasures are limited at best to one group in opposition to the rest. Race and gender transgressions, border-crossings both national and ontological, encounters between the human and the nonhuman each carry a certain potential, but rarely does cultural change occur in the place where you expect it. Foster recognizes the limitations, in practice, at least, of the American multicultural model when he speaks of “the history of U.S. attempts at integration,” which shows that “creating new possibilities for proximity and connection (whether physical or virtual) is hardly a guarantee that any real contact and exchange will occur between different groups” (206). The cultures Americans have created largely through information technologies cry out for the kind of critique that Foster, Hayles, Kevorkian, and many others have provided. Literary critics could go on answering that call, locating dwindling chances for resistance in each new object that commercial and popular cultures continually, and obligingly, bring forward for critique. Alternatively, we could take the more modest route advocated by Kirschenbaum, of discovering those places where technology affects our own practice as writers, and seeking alternatives not in the future imagined by popular culture, but in the accomplished written artifacts that have been, traditionally, the purview of literary scholarship.

Links

Kate Armstrong’s “Feeds and Streams: RSS Poetics”

John Cayley’s “The Code Is Not the Text (Unless It Is the Text)”

Jerome McGann’s “The Way We Live Now: What Is to Be Done?”

Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Acid Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature”

Daniel Punday’s “After the Post,” “Texts and Tools,” and “Middle Spaces