New Media: Its Utility and Liability for Literature and for Life
New Media: Its Utility and Liability for Literature and for Life
This formulation by Joseph Tabbi is being reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota Press’s remixthebook. The original online version can be found here: http://www.remixthebook.com/new-media-its-utility-and-liability-for-lite…
Beginning with the title, a variation on Nietzsche’s “Use and Abuse of History for Life,” this paper offers a practice-based theory of how new media writing and traditional prose scholarship might converge. The essay itself will be in the form of a literary remix. Hence, the author’s own sense of the affordances and constraints of new media will be conveyed primarily through the words of Nietzsche as well as selected works of critical writing in and about new media. One of the essay’s themes is already evident in the essay’s derivative form - namely, that the only way that literature can in fact “afford” to work in and around new media is to identify its enabling constraints, and to work through them with the self-consciousness and potential for collaborative thought that has always been present in prose fiction in print - but needn’t be unique to that medium.
“Incidentally, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity.” These are Goethe’s words, cited by Nietzsche and translated by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (XHTML markup in March 2005, accessed in the Spring of 2011). The translation, unlike Nietzsche’s citation in the nineteenth century of an author from the previous century, is available online with links to explanatory notes. With them, as with all seamless web productions, our consideration of the worth and worthlessness of new media might begin.
At least, it was our intention to begin this way, using the potential of new media to bring works of the past and present into conversation with one another, together with scholarship on the work. Our expectations, as scholars, were at once modest and potentially transforming - in keeping with, for example, Ted Nelson’s vision of hypertext as a common workplace where texts and annotations could be held together in an extended, readily searchable network.See Tabbi, “Electronic Literature as World Literature, or: “The University of Writing Under Constraint.” The record of a scholar’s writings and findings then could be conveyed, in total, to other scholars having similar interests. Unfortunately, in our own online practice (which we imagined would carry Nelson’s foundational work forward), such uses have proven to be quite rare. Our present engagement with Nietzsche will be no exception.When we renewed our search for Nietzsche’s classic essay a few months later, what we found was another version, an e-text for Arthur’s Classic Novels, which includes no links and identifies the translator as residing in Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, Canada. The translator may have relocated, or the University itself may have been moved or mis-named or it’s name may have changed. That sort of impermanence is normal in life and cannot be a scholar’s main concern. The sudden proliferation of competing texts, however, is a concern. Regarding the Johnston translation: our German is not adequate to judge its quality and, in any case, our encounters with this text in various English language transitions and in partial citations over the past three decades has produced in our own mind a composite whose relation to Nietzsche’s original is tenuous at best. My title, for example, comes not from Johnston but rather from William Paulson. Paulson’s choice of “utility” and “liability” rather than the more frequent “use” and “abuse” is helpful in avoiding sexual overtones in Nietzsche’s writing that, whether they are present in Nietzsche’s own thought or in the thought of his interpreters, can distract from his work’s relevance for our current concern - namely, the survival of literature and its institutions in the current media environment. Versions of Nietzsche’s work now turn up as e-books for downloading. Some are pdf’s and no better than printed books for a scholar intending a liberal cut-and-paste job; some are free of charge and protected for full or partial citation and remixing; others are available commercially, copyrighted and write-protected: the notes, the links, the generous, freely offered historical and critical scholarship with which we had meant to begin, are all stripped from the commercial versions. Nietzsche discussion groups abound.
I have tried to describe a feeling which has often enough tormented me: I take revenge on this feeling when I expose it to the general public. For this work is to set down why, in the spirit of Goethe’s words, we must in all seriousness despise new media textual production, knowledge which enervates activity, and new media as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we still lack what is most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential: namely, citability, interoperability, and the all-important textual stability necessary to hold in mind the words of our colleagues from the past and into the present. When Nietzsche in 1873 cited Goethe’s words from the previous century, presumably literary scholars had already begun annotating the canonical author. Granted, the word, “canonical,” in relation to secular authors, had not yet widely entered scholarly parlance: that would happen during our own present, when the notion of a literary canon would be challenged - first by revisionist scholars, and then (definitively) by new media. Goethe’s greatness, and the need for great authors generally, was in no small part a necessity constructed by a rising nationalism - intensified in a country such as Nietzsche’s Germany that came to nationhood later than most European countries.As one commentator points out, Nietzsche was writing just a few years after “the creation of the Second Reich” under Otto Von Bismark. See Scott Horton, Harper’s August 2008. ONLINE at http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/08/hbc-90001025 Indeed, the need for “great authors,” like the need for military conquests, monumental achievements, and authentic national traits, can be seen (retrospectively) as the kind of mis-use of history that Nietzsche warns against. Nietzsche himself, notoriously, would be mis-used in the century after his death, by those finding support for Nazism in his admiration of forgetful action and blind passion, his preference for action over the slow workings of justice.
We have succeeded in removing canonicity from our discourse; we have in fact removed all appeal to cultural authority not least because of its demonstrable mis-use in past nationalist formations - not only the German nation-state of of the 1930s and 1940s, but also in Russia which, like Germany, emerged as a nation (and then a short-lived empire) later than its European counterparts. The establishment of Pushkin and Tolstoy in positions of cultural authority was as much a political development as a cultural one, and their centrality proved useful throughout the Soviet period. During the Cold War, George Steiner could pose world-political alternatives by titling his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoyevski. That was one among a relatively few realistic, world-historical choices available then, in 1960. Today, our choices have multiplied, as the number of “imagined communities” has expanded (Anderson). But we no longer look to criticism, to distinguish among personal choices and gathering tendencies within a culture or collective: here everything is simply taken as equally worthy of reverence, but everything which does not fit this respect for “difference,” like the new or the coming into being of a cultural consciousness, is rejected and treated as hostile.
Equally significant was Steiner’s sub-title to the second edition, An Essay in the Old Criticism (Yale University Press). In posing literary alternatives as having consequences for life, Steiner was writing against his time - which is to say, against the “new criticism” that was then current in the United States. A critical practice grounded in close readings of works regarded as autonomous, the new criticism had the virtue of avoiding paraphrase and author biographies (“the dust of biographical rubbish,” in Nietzsche’s words-in-translation). If New Criticism rightly separated works from tedious historicization and avoided tendentious political positioning, it could often court the opposite risk of separating the work from its real life consequences. These involve an author’s or a reader’s choosing this work, rather than another; working for the moment in this language, not another; and following this worldview, however much one might denigrate or respect another.
This essay is also out of touch with the times because here I am trying for once to see as a contemporary disgrace, infirmity, and defect something of which our age is justifiably proud, its new media culture. For I believe, in fact, that we are all suffering from a consumptive historical fever and at the very least should recognize that we are afflicted with it. If Goethe with good reason said that with our virtues we simultaneously cultivate our faults and if, as everyone knows, a hypertrophic virtue (as the worldwide transactional mediation of our age appears to me to be) can serve to destroy a people just as well as a hypertrophic vice, then people may make allowance for me this once. Insofar as I am a student of print literature, particularly those works of the 1960s and 70s in the United States that already, collectively, deconstructed the Western literary canon, I am not a child of new media practices who can pretend to know nothing of its antecedents. But I need to ascribe this much to myself on account of my profession as a print-era literary scholar, for I have no idea what the significance of print criticism would be in our age, if not to have an untimely effect - that is, to work against the time and thereby have an effect upon it, hopefully for the benefit of a future time.
Observe the multitude which is online with you at this moment. Send any one of them in any place anywhere an image or text. Do not be concerned about his, her, or your linguistic capacities: at either end, we will have the option of translating our correspondence instantly into any language, from Africans, Albanian, or Arabic to Vietnamese, Welsh, or Yiddish. The transactional value of such multilingual communication is by now proven. The cultural value, however, of multiplying literacies for literature and for life in our post-nationalist times is not so great as we might think. The hundreds of different languages accommodated by new media, however democratic in the abstract, hold scarcely any potential for community formation across languages, except in the primitive sense that any language corresponds to the same typically permanent needs of people. If we can now translate among languages automatically and nearly instantly, what of it? Anyone who understood these prior needs could learn nothing new from all the languages. In the same way, the super-historical thinker, working without electronic mediation, can readily illuminate from within herself all the histories of people and of individuals, guessing like a clairvoyant the original sense of the different hieroglyphics. Gradually, even she will grow tired and do what she can to avoid the constantly new streams of written signals streaming forth.
Cultural differences, the moment they are translated and offered for exchange, relapse into more of the same. It is no different for authorship that grounds itself not in a developing language but rather an identity or (what amounts to the same thing) a remix of available patois and cultural identifiers. The contemporary choice among a multiplicity of authors using different languages deriving from various named cultures, and the hesitation among scholars to identify, let alone judge, contrasting world views, turns us away from participation in an imagined community of authors ideally writing in a single evolving language for a common audience. That commonality was certainly imaginary, no less than the idea that one’s authorship would contribute to the life of a language (as our words take form in other minds, the minds of our eventual readers fluent in this language). There never was, in actual fact, a literary commons with laws, rights, rites of recognition, and rules of inheritance comparable to the nation state; there never was, in Pascal Casanova’s formulation, a world republic of letters. But this literary extension of the state was nonetheless worth imagining - unlike the current multiplication of languages and discourses which are instantly translatable and can be understood, literally by any person anywhere using new media.
Our present literary communities, like our “born digital” texts, appear to have no need for imagination at all. What we have, instead of Goethe’s world literature, Casanova’s world republic, or Anderson’s imagined communities, are communities of interests: professional, functionally differentiated communities within a strictly limited sphere of action, whose work is addressed to very specific audiences speaking any language and taking an undifferentiated interest in any culture. No language or literature can come to us from the inalterable past, and nothing is foreign. Anyone who has learned to recognize the sense of literature in the old way must get annoyed to see inquisitive students “googling” an author’s professional and biographical details, or to see painstaking forensic researchers clambering all over the code of a born digital literary work that has appeared only yesterday but has likely been rendered obsolescent by changes overnight in format. The sole requirement of new media is that it must be, perpetually, new; that is, it exists within that region of media that always wants to be new (Heckman): to be timely, to be turning up on the top page of search engines. Hence we study, not the development of a common language among a multitude of potentially communicating minds but rather layers on layers of superseded code, as if these supports to communication were among the heaped up art treasures in a gallery.
They are only traces in silicon, these codes that we expend so much energy mastering, over and again with each upgrade or market failure. But unlike earlier traces in sand, in erased and reused parchments, or for that matter in the self-renewing circuits of memory in a human brain, the traces encoded in new media never disappear. This principle, which comes as a surprise to anyone who has “lost” the contents of a hard-drive, is the foundation of a forensic criticism (Kirschenbaum). In new media, the past is never written over, and hence no feeling for the past (or for our own present vulnerabilities) can develop. Not in the way that the history of one’s own city, for example, can become for us the history of ourselves. We understand the walls, the turreted gate, the dictate of the city council, and the folk festival as if these were pages in an illustrated diary of our youth. We rediscover in the formative age of our cities all the force, purpose, passion, set opinion, foolishness, and bad habits of our own youth. We say to ourselves, here we could live, for here it is possible to live, and here we can go on living, because we are tenacious and (unlike our continually updated media) we do not collapse overnight. But neither do we hold on forever, and this capacity to perish, to relinquish our life narratives and let go of our historical consciousness, makes possible a living history that new media denies with its eternal, literal, uncommunicating memory.
In the past lives of cities, as in our own lives, we might seek the seeds of a narrative. We might even imagine that such a narrative is necessary for our happiness, for our feeling of being at home in the world, for our belonging to history. Nietzsche himself implies that a personal narrative is needful in our lives - that, without the ability to see our lives as a story in progress, our lives are in a sense incomplete, rootless, or unworthy. Still, even as our participation in a national community is largely imaginary, so too is our relation to our own life narratives. Nietzsche knows this, and he knows also that our narratives, and all the burdens of memory they place on us, do not in most instances make us happy. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (“all false,” as Thomas Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow), can also be, like new media, expensive superfluities - and in any case there is no particular cognitive or aesthetic reason why we should insist on shaping our lives and our literature in narrative form. The majority of lives, and arguably the majority of literary fictions throughout history, has been decidedly non-narrative.
And new media fiction? This, too, seemed at first to be a welcome avoidance of narrative form, a return to the episodic, epistolary, and encyclopedic wellsprings of literary innovation. Early criticism (by Bolter, Cayley, Grusin, Harpold, Joyce, Landow, and others), tended to emphasize the “non-linearity” and “open-ended,” quality of pioneering fictions and poetries written in new media. They were not mistaken in this: Authors of electronic literature, working in digital environments that, like the human brain, are also layered and multi-mediated, tended to eschew conventional, linear plot lines for hypertextual, hypermediated narratives in which language is a minority element, a niche within the overall mental and medial ecology.
(But language, which we imagine ourselves to be speaking, more likely speaks us: Ulmer’s approach to new media as an engine for the generation of neologisms, puns, and so forth, is one example of a literary development that is distinctly non-narrative: the only difference between our evolving languages then and now, is that new media can trace the development of keywords and contexts, unlike the transformation of words over time in human minds and spoken by human tongues: will we go on neglecting this admirably objective, empirical study of our language’s current evolution in favor of a continued pursuit of online stories, public personae, goal-oriented gaming, and role-playing without rapport?)
The mistake made by first-generation hypertext critics - some of them, and not for long - was to reify the print medium, the better to contrast the emerging (but also short-lived) forms of programmable, born digital literature. It was immensely satisfying, but wrong, to suppose that the presentation of lines of text in print literature could determine, or somehow direct, literary writing towards linear narratives with clear beginnings, an expansion of narrative possibilities consistent with the accumulation of pages, and a subsequent reduction of these possibilities toward inevitabilities (in marriage, death, education, a clear rise or fall in a character’s class position - things connected not to the human condition as such, but more likely to conditions of capitalism and an expanding middle class that not only allowed, but necessitated, unending life-transformation). The need to account for one’s own life changes had much more to do with the ideologyWhile we’re on the topic of ideology, we might point out the very brief advocacy in new media cultural criticism of a kind of liberatory economic determinism. Consistent with the idea that text-block assemblies would of themselves move new media writing away from narrative linearities, was the notion that the reproducibility of electronic content would somehow urge new media away from the commodity form and in the direction of a gift economy. Granted, one can have the text or file that one has sent, and one can in theory send texts to the entire world, but generally one does not own the interface unless it is built to be shared, open sourced, and interoperable. Even academia, which maintains a gift economy among libraries, has developed a hitherto unheard of monopoly of traditional literary critical content in the Johns Hopkins University Project Muse. My own university subscribes, no doubt, but as my own writing life takes place largely away from the university, I doubt that I have ever read past the few opening lines of any of the thousands of essays that Hopkins makes unavailable to ordinary readers connected to the Internet. of nineteenth-century realist fiction, than they ever had to do with the medial form of print: Stern, no less than Pynchon, demonstrates print’s perfect compatibility with disjunctions and nonlinearities that are now endemic to new media. The physical enclosure of a codex does not in itself guarantee narrative closure, and printed text itself, due to variations in type setting and the proliferation of multiple, often unauthorized editions, is less stable than we might think (as Adrian Johns has shown in The Nature of the Book).
Still less should new media be made to reinforce nineteenth century realism, that one relatively brief narrative turn in the history of literary fiction. (Recognizing this brevity, in relation to the longer tradition of non-narrative fiction, is part of what makes Steven Moore’s encyclopedic work on the novel from Gilgamesh to William Gaddis, an Alternative History.) But the reinforcement of personal narrative as a cultural dominant in new media is what seems to have happened - if not in the early, important but relatively small-scale and short-lived experimentation of avant garde literary hypertext, then in the explosion of social networking media. At first glance, the persistence of narrative in new media can be dismissed as an imposition of a commercial ideology - in which all media has to be “mine,” with the same possessive individualism we are taught to bring to purchased goods and sexual relationships. More generally, however, the emergence of the personal narrative in new media can be understood as a powerful development in what James Phelan (who knows a thing or two about narrative structuring) calls its current tendency toward “imperialism.”
The persistence of narrative in new media is an artifact of our own individual desire, not yet outlived and not to be outdone by new media, to be great.
Let us now place before our eyes the new media virtuoso of our present age. Is she not the most connected, and hence imperious, of personalities in contemporary history? It is true that she has cultivated in herself such a tenderness and sensitivity for all of humankind, and for her nothing human is distant. The most different times and people ring out at once from her screen in harmonious tones. She is active daily in signing petitions and following news of revolutions worldwide - not as this news is broadcast by old media, but as it is received through a Facebook or Twitter feed by those on the ground, people who linked in or signed up a mere decade, a few years, or maybe some days later than she. She has become part of a tuneful, interactive thing, which through its resounding tone also works on other actors of the same type, until suddenly the entire air of an age is full of such delicate reverberations, twanging away in concord.
But, in my view, in every original narrative chord we hear only its overtone, so to speak: the sturdiness of power in its violent origins can no longer be sensed in the celestially thin and sharp sound of the strings. Whereas the original tone usually aroused actions, needs, and terrors, this birdlike twittering lulls us to sleep and makes us weak hedonists, as the pressing and heartfelt news today from Egypt or Syria gives way tomorrow to equally pressing news from northern Japan, struck by a tsunami, from the oil-polluted Gulf, or from regions closer to our own affective political life in the United States:
Joy, you won’t believe what they said.
Since Monday, more than 50,000 ColorOfChange members have called on Psychology Today to address its decision to run an article that uses false science to argue that Black women are “objectively” less attractive than women of other races. Still, they’ve remained silent.
Can you help us get to 70,000? It takes a second to add your voice to the call, demanding PT apologize and explain how this won’t happen again. Once we get to 70,000, we’ll deliver your petitions to Psychology Today’s headquarters to increase the pressure.
Thanks and Peace,
– Rashad, James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Matt, Natasha, and the rest of the ColorOfchange.org team (received at Joseph Tabbi’s email account on May 26th, 2011)
It is as if we have arranged the Ode to Joy for two flutes and now we use it to entertain dreamy opium smokers. By that we may now measure among the new media virtuosi how things will stand concerning the highest demands of global humankind for a loftier and purer justice; this virtue never has anything pleasant, knows no attractive feelings, and is hard and terrifying.
Without question, there is a kind of greatness in new media’s global connectivity and its organization of human attention. That individual users of new media can also believe that their own lives, through participation in new media, can be “great,” is a powerful display of the imperialism of narrative in new media.
Does any of this create knowledge, however? What if we reach 70,000 and demand of British Petroleum to explain how similar eruptions won’t happen again? They have science on their side, or at least, the majority of scientists in the Gulf are on their payroll and prevented by terms of their contract from publishing what they know, and presenting it to possible falsification under peer review.
Does any of it make history? A decade or so after the so-called “Internet Revolutions,” we find the Suharto family and their old network still comfortably situated in Indonesia and wielding influence; Yanakovitch in Ukraine, whose attempt to steal the presidential vote triggered the 2002 mass gathering in Kiev’s Independence Square, is currently in power in Ukraine. Mubarak has stepped down. And?
Does any of it make us happy? That is doubtful, and was doubted by Nietzsche when he contrasted the forgetful lives of animals with our own, often debilitating, historical consciousness. In any case, happiness rarely has much to do with greatness: the small, unnoticed being in the moment, if only it is uninterrupted and makes one happy, is incomparably more happiness than the greatest which comes only as a newly mediated episode, as a mood, so to speak, as an amazing interruption between nothing but boredom, desire, and deprivation.
However, with the smallest and with the greatest happiness there is always one way in which happiness fulfills itself: through the ability to forget, or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things without registering them in narrative and without mediation. Anyone who cannot set herself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting the need to report one’s whereabouts and post one’s photos to one’s fellows; anyone who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory; whoever cannot look a passerby in the eye, without raising one’s mobil to the ear; she who cannot move in mixed company without busily texting a pre-approved contact, will never know what happiness is, and, even worse, she will never do anything to make other people happy.
If literature and its institutions are to survive as more than an elitist nuisance, then reading and writing need to be made attractive and desirable in a communications and cultural environment where they must compete for attention with other media. Their desirability can only result from being used to do what they do well and what other media do less well. 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: everyone can respond in kind to works in language and talk back to them. Everyone can use language to speak, to think, and to play.
When Nietzsche cites Goethe, he is entering, not Goethe’s mind exactly, but an inscription of a thought that Goethe thought worth recording, in words that made sense to him at a given moment in a given time. The difference between what seems natural to Nietzsche in his contemporary German, and what seemed right for Goethe, is a measure of their affiliation and difference, more objective than any wholly conceptual similarity or contrast. The differences we experience today, in a questionably translated and freely rewritten revision of Nietzsche’s words, is a measure of the conceptual distance we have come from this author, whose words seem to have been only waiting all this time for new media, to realize themselves.
This is not a “dialogue” so much as the continuation of a thought from the past into present consciousness. Such thought is untimely. It happens exclusively in language.
If new media is ever going to be literary, it too needs to make intersubjective events happen in language. That is the only way to locate the literary in new media - in reading, and writing, and with the remixing of published words of our chosen antecedents.
The choice cannot be neutral, like a sampling in music or ironic allusion in modern literature: what is chosen needs to be believed in, made continuous with our own thought - otherwise we will have produced nothing more than a continuation of newness for its own sake; nothing more, that is, than what is already being produced by new media. And how, exactly, is the remix currently imagined? I am reminded of something a friend told me, when recounting a remix artist’s description of his work: “ ‘imagine being able to put Elton John in a headlock, put a beat behind him and pour a beer on his head.’ He was describing his work process of creating music through mashup, and while we might not call this writing (as in writing music?), he might. His description is amazingly metaphoric, and yet literal in a strange way.” (Maria Engberg, email to Joseph Tabbi, 5 June 2011).
The headlock is more than a metaphor of the false objectification of an intersubjective process. Since the mashup, more often than not, means never encountering - not even in imagination - the thought that went into a work’s composition.
Contrast the remix artist’s objective locking of heads, with another, pre-digital remix produced by Robert Wyatt - a setting to music of the sampled words of Karl Marx, whose content is relevant also to the present discussion:
FREE WILL AND TESTAMENT
Given free will but within certain limitations.
I cannot will myself to limitless mutations.
I cannot know what I would be if I were not me.
I can only guess me.
Here we have not a headlock, but rather a kind of thinking in step with one’s literary antecedent - and we have, also, one of the best summaries I know of what we might call (following Nietzsche, who is in turn followed by the cognitive philosopher, Catherine Malabou) the plastic force of personality. Such plasticity is manifested, not in a narrative of oneself or the enactment of one’s own limitless freedom to cite and repurpose anything in the archive. Plasticity emerges rather in an ability to inhabit the archive through a process of reading and writing under constraint.
So when I say that I know me, how can I know that?
What kind of spider understands arachnophobia.
The critical exercise, too, needs to be more than a demonstration of new media’s infinite archival capacities; it needs to demonstrate more than the flexibility of labor and new media’s limitless freedom to remix the archive. Can we not instead look to new media for expressions of our thought’s plasticity in the course of literary history? In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which a past literature must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we would have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of oneself.
I have my senses and my sense of having senses.
Do I guide them? Or they me?
Why cannot this untimely thought-exchange happen through image, sound, the tactile senses, even music? One reason that our early theorizations of new media writing were based on hypertexts, is that it took some years for visuals and sounds to achieve fluency in new media. The transfer of these sizable files was a bit of a strong-man act, early on. Now that it can be done fairly easily and without counting megabytes, for anyone who can afford commercially available platforms, the textual in new media is back to its usual, marginal place in an overall media ecology.
But can we not inhabit earlier minds in image and sound with anything like the confidence with which we inhabit a written text? This is doubtful, and not because we under-value the visual and sonic arts in new media. Coetzee in Summertime, depicting himself (as he imagines others saw him) in the years before his own greatness, has the highest possible opinion of the musical arts:
One night John arrived in an unusually excited state. He had with him a little cassette player, and put on a tape, the Schubert string quintet. It was not what I would call sexy music, nor was I particularly in the mood, but he wanted to make love, and specifically - excuse the explicitness - wanted us to co-ordinate our activities to the music, to the slow movement.
The slow movement of the quintet, as John Coetzee instructs his lover, “happens to be about fucking.” And not about sex in general, but about what it felt like for women and men to make love in post-Bonaparte Austria.
His lover, Julia, thinks otherwise. For her the man’s tempo, keyed to the music, is just slow and in any case the activity is meaningless without any foreplay between the living lovers. Reflecting further, Julia suspects that John, who was otherwise adequate sexually, nonetheless suffered a kind of sexual “autism.” Characteristically, she says, the autistic type treats other people as automata, mysterious automata. In return he expects to be treated reciprocally as the object of your desire.
What the fictional John Coetzee could not achieve through his applied theory of sexuality through the ages, the author, J. M. Coetzee, accomplishes with his imagination, and he does this exclusively through written language. Specifically, he achieves not a dialogue but a potential thought continuum, in his imagination of words his lover might have spoken to a third party (the young biographer, who can explore these recollected intimacies now that “Coetzee” is dead and so can no longer feel insulted). In this way, the literary author overcomes the automatism of his earlier, entirely sensual communication, by imagining how his lover can have imagined him:
[With John], I never had the feeling that he was with me, me in all my reality. Rather, it was as if he was engaged with some erotic image of me inside his head; perhaps even with some image of Woman with a capital W.
Is this a narrative effect? Is it episodic? It shares with narrative, the creation of a continuity - but the continuity belongs all on the side of language, not life experience or the accumulation of knowledge. It is episodic in the same sense that any sexual encounter is an episode, not recoverable in memory in anything matching the momentary experience. Words, precisely because they are detached from the senses, are capable of evoking one admittedly small component of experience - namely, the thought we experience while writing, which is experienced again by another, while reading.
Impatient with mere textual knowledge, theorists nowadays look to sound, image, and the human body itself as sources of affect - all the more powerful because present, or at least accessible, in new media. But as Coetzee’s lover Julia confirms, the avoidance of discourse (the slow, mostly verbal “foreplay”), and the favoring of immediate and direct sensual experience can actually limit the sensual imagination. It is a kind of sexual autism, in Julia’s word; a race for eunuchs, as Nietzsche puts it in his usual, tactful way. For a eunuch, as for John with his over-theorized erotic image, one woman is as good as another. Each woman is for him, in effect, merely a woman, the woman-in-itself, the eternally unapproachable, and so what drives him is something indifferent, so long as love-making itself remains splendidly “objective” and, of course protected precisely by the sort of people who could never make love, or history, themselves.
And since the eternally feminine will never draw the affective theorist upward, he then pulls her down to himself and assumes, since he is neutered, that history is also neutral. However, so that people do not think that I am serious in comparing history with the eternally feminine, I wish to express myself much more clearly: I consider that history is the opposite of the eternally masculine, but for those who theorize the living feminine body as itself a kind of writing, a vessel of narratives, then sexuality as such must be quite unimportant. Either way, when presenting writing as a sensuous affect, such people are themselves neither male nor female; they are not something common to both; nor are they authors of narratives that can only be understood exclusively by brothers or sisters of the same sex. What they are is neither male nor female, not sexual at all nor even gendered, but always and forever neuter or, to express myself in a more educated way, they are just the eternally objective.
The term of preference for the above-mentioned condition, in new media scholarship today, might be “object oriented.”
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter, for example. In particular, OOO rejects the claims that human experience rests at the center of philosophy, and that things can be understood by how they appear to us. In place of science alone, OOO uses speculation to characterize how objects exist and interact.
That definition was not published; like much new media scholarship today it was rather presented in a blog with the intention of further revision for the purpose of a more widespread communication through journalists and other media representatives, particularly those who do not read philosophy. Thus, as ever, the widest net requires the most specialized language - namely, that which can be understood by anyone who conveys a thought universally through new media. After collective deliberation, the authors of this definition evidently decided to drop Harry Potter and to offer a clearer location of their own “ontology” within the sphere of “contemporary thought” - insofar as schools of thought can be named, reduced to this or that un-ambivalent position, and so made to circulate (with OOO itself) in new media:
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves [sic].
Structurally, the field is neutralized at the start because, whether or not a fictional object is listed, and regardless of that object’s quality, “everything exists equally.” We have, in the eyes and orifices of OOO, a kind of eternally and universally unapproachable being-in-itself consistent with the eternally feminine described by Nietzsche. But there is also a rhetorical neutering, that has to do with the tendency in new media to write collectively - and so implicitly obliging anyone wishing to respond to the definition, to read through all that talk, lest a viewpoint should be neglected or, worse, disrespected. Even so, it is unlikely that any true scholar will take on that task, since her late arrival (days, months, or years after the conversation has played out), would require re-starting the discussion and then possibly responding to every new objection or nuance brought in by the old consort, as well as by members newly arrived. But the purpose of blog discussion is not, in any case, to arrive at truth but rather to create a representative and rhetorically effective statement, for circulation in the widest public sphere. Respect for the collectivity is the only requirement for participation and no post will be rejected so long as it maintains its respectful demeanor. The inclusion or exclusion of a “fictive object” - what is clearly marginalized by the proposed ontological discourse - is not debated, and nobody is so crass as to express an opinion on the literary quality of Harry Potter. All that’s noted, is the book’s potential for controversy, so “it might not be the best rhetorical move to put that point in such a short description. Unless that’s precisely the reason to do it.”
Such discussions are essential to the development of a thought, an electronic construction, an interactive site - anything that can be used as a foundation for further construction, further thought. Such discussions are like the notes drafted in the margins of an essay (from which for example the present essay was constructed). Like these notes from earlier media engagements, the blog discussions should be discarded, and forgotten. They are essential to history, essential that is to the documents and constructions that are the historical scholar’s proper field of reference. But they are not historical documents in themselves, except for the most cloying biographical and fanatically oriented mass cultural scholarship. The dust of biographical rubbish. Like the notes and marginal scrawls that preceded them in print media, such materials should be kept private, used for internal discussion and not preserved for literary analysis.
The weight of dust exceeds the weight of settled objects.
What can it mean, such gravity without a center?
Worse still: the blog, as a vehicle of new media scholarship, has the effect of internalizing criticism, giving no more “special status” to the one who seeks a truth or stakes out a position than to the person whose formulation is designed, primarily, to bring terms into wider circulation within new media. Of course, distinctions are made in practice and the discourse of this particular blog has the ring of one status in particular - namely, that of contemporary corporate culture, where the above-cited “elevator pitch” of Object Oriented Ontology is directed, primarily. The proliferation of voices and visions itself ensures that the literary object will not be allowed a special, media specific voice of its own, even if literature has proven its capacity to extend thoughts beyond present conversations toward a continuing intersubjective process. Instead, literature is observed only in its external objecthood, even as the proliferation of any number of other “objects” for study neutralizes the critical impulse to select this object, rather than another, in support of this worldview rather than another. What we have, instead, is a worldview that embraces being indiscriminately, the way Nietzsche’s neutered historian embraces not a desired object, but only the eternally feminine. Woman with a capital W, so to speak: Ontology with its capital O’s.
Unlike the imagined audience for a work of print literature, which is abstract and broadcast, our electronic correspondence is absolutely particular and receptive. Each recipient is an individual, with her own culture and interests, even “passionate interests” (Latour) that can be formulated in conversation, aggregated mathematically, and valued according to the expressed or recognized interests of others. Esteem, as much as anything, can now be calculated in new media. But this individuality, unlike the individualism associated with print literacy, is wholly objective (or, rather, “object oriented” in the terms of Latour’s followers in new media). The conventional privacy of an extended encounter with a printed text has not much traction in new media; neither does the reserve that one brings to cosmopolitan discourse. In new media, we have instead of privacy, security: protective passwords, protocols that allow or disallow contacts, profiles that reveal parts of ourselves in transaction with others - particularly, those who share our orientation toward particular objects, and objectives, in life.
Interiority is not lost in new media transactions; to the contrary, a subject’s personal aspects are minutely defined and capable of extended refinement through online conversation. The passions, including the passions of crowds, are wholly capable of being treated mathematically, thus transforming economic calculations of a group’s productive capacity. But only that which is namable, narratable, countable, and available for exchange is real. What is not transacted, what is not translatable, is not present in new media.
Sheer momentum makes us act this way or that way.
We just invent, or just assume a motivation.
Formerly, with the rise of the novel and expansion of print literacy, our imagined communities, and an author’s primary audience, tended to attach themselves to a national vision. The nation was, admittedly, a very abstract entity (one could not know every person in a nation the way one could know, for example, the people in one’s neighborhood; one could not envision a nation the way one could visualize, say, a town or a city). Hence the need, in Benedict Anderson’s terms, to imagine the national community. Participation in the nation was facilitated in most cases by a single national language. Precisely because of these linguistic constraints on a sizable population, nations could aspire to a more or less universal literacy over a designated geographical area. Its authors could cultivate national literatures, the better to form cosmopolitan networks among distinct nations, through which authors could discover sympathetic expressions (in other languages) and refine differences in competition with other national literatures. The constraints of the nation were not necessarily provincial; indeed, as we know Goethe had envisioned an idea of a “universal world Literature in the process of formation” only after observing how his own works had been received in France. (Cited in Prendergast 3) Goethe’s sense of “a common world literature transcending national limits” was not, and by its defining terms could not be, offered as a personal vision so much as a recognition of new modes of cultural “traffic” (Hoesel-Uhlig, cited in Prendergast 2). This, too, the means of trans-national circulation not the striving for transparency and understanding among different languages, remains the basis for the desired construction of a world literature in new mediaSee Tabbi, “Electronic Literature.”; but its realization (never robust in print, admittedly), is doubly frustrated in new media because one’s aesthetic, subjective, and otherwise “passionate interests” have been transformed (with remarkable success) into objective elements available for exchange.
Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air.
Be on the loose, neither compacted nor suspended.
Neither born nor left to die.
The idea of a market not for commodities exclusively but for the passionate interests of men and woman who have formed networks, is not born with new media. Indeed, Latour shows how in the nineteenth century, the “undisciplined” mind of the French economist, Tarde, produced something very like a network theory of exchange. Such a theory, which is neither socialist nor capitalist, is decidedly object oriented, even when the object in question is an individual’s passion, or an individual’s life narrative. The clear power of such an approach is that value is designated in cultural areas at the point where they reach expression by individuals. Subjectivity, it turns out, can be treated mathematically after all - so long as our thoughts find expression in, and are channeled through, new media.
My argument is this - we have preserved everything in electronic formats available to forensics but unavailable to minds engaged in the thought expressed in past works of literature. Our knowing is “object-oriented” rather than cognitive. All history is made present without difference; all history is personalized, and hence past writing is lost to literature and to life.
This is not an argument against the commodification of culture. The attachment of passions and subjectivity to objects is not at all the same as commodity fetishism: rather, one’s feelings themselves take objective form in new media. And so, even the most passing thought, or the smallest episode in a life, can be itself the object of present memory and hence is capable of continuing transactions within the media they objectively inhabit. In new media, an ever greater portion of the world population is coming to live historically. Whether this transformation can bring more happiness to more people is doubtful, from a Nietzschean perspective.
But we can, nonetheless, rework that perspective - in a palimpsest of Nietzsche’s words and our own, and in an electronic medium specific to our time.
In doing so, our machines also work on our thoughts. How often during the composition of this essay has my word processing program reminded me of the many, many ways that the name Nietzsche can be misspelled? How frequently am I made aware of deviance from current parlance, each time I transcribe the philosopher’s translated words? How many improbable, useful evolutions in a given word or usage are frustrated this way, by dutiful scribes conforming to current usage enforced by the authority of new media?
Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere, in any object, a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in her own being. no longer believes in herself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses herself in this stream of becoming. She will, finally, hardly dare any more to lift her finger from the keyboard or touch-screen.
I would disperse, be disconnected. Is that possible?
For Nietzsche writing in the late nineteenth century, Goethe’s German must have seemed already an idiom fixed and usable in the present not only for its sentiment (a “spirit” or spur to life and action) but also for its resistance to Nietzsche’s own age - a resistance embodied in the words themselves and kept alive in Nietzsche’s own consciousness at the time of reading, and with the act of citation potentially carried forward to later minds re-reading the citation and reconsidering the consequences drawn by Nietzsche in his philosophical writings.
Nothing prevents our similar engagement today. But we need to engage not with being in its entirety, but rather with the entire body of past print literature and and current, born-digital writing.
With a hundred people raised in such an unmodern way, that is, people who have become mature and familiar with the literary potential of new media, one could permanently silence the entire noisy pseudo-culture of the age.
WORKS CITED AND FREELY SAMPLED
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Latour, Bruno, and Vincent Antonin Lépinay (2010). The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s Economic Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Paulson, William (2001). Literary Culture In a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Phelan, James (2005). “Editor’s Column: Who’s Here? Thoughts on Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism.” Nattative 13.3: 2005-10.
Predergast, Christopher, Ed. (2004). Debating World Literature. New York: Norton.
Steiner, George (1960). Tolstoy or Dostoevski. London: Faber and Faber.
Strawson, Galen (2004). “Against Narrativity.” Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December.
Tabbi, Joseph (Spring 2010). “Electronic Literature as World Literature, or: The Universality of Writing Under Constraint.” Poetics Today 31.1: 17-50 . Special issue eds. Hans Baetans and Jens-Jacques Poucel.
Wyatt, Robert (1977). “Free Will and Testament.” His Greatest Misses (2004). ONLINE at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fv_F29h_qxM