Saturday, May 17, 2008

Technology, Capitalism and the (Im)possibility of Literature

The Hypertechnological Moment

Having left the technological age behind, we have been in the hypertechnological moment for quite some time now.

The need to characterize the present as a moment arises from the situation produced by the impact on temporality of recent developments in information and communication technologies. The instantaneity of communications today alters the experience of temporality in a way that renders obsolete the terminology of ages and periods. The sense of the passage of time wears away as the tempo of experience crosses the barrier beyond which the experience of time ceases to register as a passage. As Paul Virilio argues, the present becomes, in its global “amplification”, a time bomb that drains the past and the future of their temporalities, leaving us trapped in its own eternity as “the time of an endless perpetuation of the present” (133-34; 143).

With the hypertechnological moment superceding the technological age, history seems, at least for now, to have ended. It may be reborn once we have reconfigured ourselves, by equipping ourselves with a faster tempo, to match the new temporality.

The hypertechnological moment can be said to have arrived when technology becomes ostensibly self-driven, self-accelerating and self-justifying and when it becomes progressively indistinguishable from culture. It begins to pervasively infiltrate culture even as it sucks culture into itself. The distinction that Heidegger famously made between technology and the technological mode of being may, then, have already begun to vanish under the pressure of speed as life, in live interface with technology, comes increasingly to happen, instead of being lived in the space-time of reflexive experience.

The hypertechnological moment is, thus, a bizarre realization of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere as the ideologically (informationally) induced universal condition of a perpetual, “general accident” that pre-empts reflection and perspective by means of sheer speed (Virilio 70; 125). So fast does one technological object replace another in a false infinity of choices that despair is permanently aborted as if by default and the possibility of entry into the ethical sphere blocked. Heidegger fondly hoped that the human being would reaffirm, in the darkly seductive face of technology, his obligation to preserve Being, but he probably did not anticipate the powerful nexus between capitalism and technology in which Being soon after his lifetime would be shrouded.

Capitalism and Informationalism

Hypertechnology is not just the next phase after technology. It emerges from the imperatives of what Felix Guattari calls the Integrated World Capitalism (IWC), which both feeds and is fed by high-speed networks of information processing and transmission (Guattari 31; 47). IWC is not post-ideological. Neither does information replace ideology under it. Its ideology is informationalism. As ideology and practice, informationalism can barely conceal its two-way umbilical link with the IWC, though it has a tendency to conceal the character of information as a product and to silently further the capitalist project of economicization of culture through digitization. By means of digitization, cultural objects (to which culture is now reduced for the convenience of economistic classification) are transformed into digital data to be fed into the technological matrix for informationalization.

It is not being argued that in the past culture and technology must have been ideally and happily distinguishable but have only now become indistinguishable. The point is only to understand the present by using the past as a point of reference. We need to grasp the implications of the fact that in the present moment the technological appropriation of culture has been uncontrollably exacerbated under the global information regime of the IWC which carries out a massive commodification of culture by technologically over-writing the conventional boundaries between culture and economy.

Deeply implicated in this process are the new media that constitute a synthetic parallel ecology in which we find literature and subjectivity getting increasingly caught. The new media are in an advanced stage of reterritorializing culture in an act of absolute imperialism. This imperialism, however, confronts its greatest challenge in the defiant nexus of literature and subjectivity. Since these two are among the last outposts of resistance to the capitalist logic of usability/disposability, threatening that logic with destabilization and subversion, capitalism cannot but engage them in order to reconfigure them for its purposes. Under the global information regime, this engagement has so far appeared mainly as the attempt to informationalize literature and subjectivity. There really are people who seriously look at literature as data and explore the possibility of moving on from a theory of archetypes to a theory of algorithms. And just as there are companies (run, ironically, by real people) that treat people as data, there are ‘futuristically-oriented’ cognitive scientists who hope to one day download consciousness in a disk drive.

The phrase ‘digital humanities’ hits you therefore, if you have not already begun to accept it out of dead habit, with a ring of monstrosity which arises from its apparently inbuilt contradiction. Indeed, departments of the humanities in universities around the world have been taking the digital turn with an ease that astonishes even those in the so-called hard sciences who thought these departments were home to dinosaurs only. The optimism seems to come from the immense proliferation of writing which the switch-over from the print to the digital technologies has entailed. But the proliferation may not really be something to celebrate if one considers the possibility it has opened up of the unlimited dispersion of literature into generalized writing. On the one hand, there is the war on the literary canon being waged from several directions. On the other, technology has liberated the text from the charmed confines of the written word, forcing us to cultivate transliteracies, or literacies “across several media” (Thomas). Together these developments have facilitated the proliferation of writing to a point where we witness the rise of excessively narcissistic humanism in which writing as self-expression, self-projection and self-advertisement threatens to eclipse writing as literature. The result is we face a situation in which there are new impediments in the way of redeeming the promise of literature, whether that promise is seen – as Sartre does, regarding literature as “the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution” – as that of action and resistance (122; 183; 224), or – as Blanchot does – as that of the writer’s disappearance into writing:

The work requires of the writer that he lose everything he might construe as his own “nature”, that he lose all character and that, ceasing to be linked to others and to himself by the decision which makes him an “I,” he becomes the empty space where the impersonal affirmation emerges (55).

In the free-for–all of cyberspace, when all acts of writing and uploading come to be seen as acts of resistance, resistance is divested of its political specificity and power. Likewise, narcissistic humanism can preempt what Blanchot sees as writing’s extreme demand that is the signature of literature’s infinite solitude and also of its singularity.

The Will to Informationalize and the Resistance to It

But literature and subjectivity are neither disposable nor strictly usable. And they are irreducible to information. Any attempts to informationalize them must necessarily leave a residue, or produce a surplus, that can be tentatively signified only in its singularity. This residue, or surplus, refuses to inhabit the IWC’s synthetic ecology as just one more bit or node in the global information network and so preserves the possibilities of resistance to capitalism’s global hyper-techno-logic. Against the homogenizing hegemony of capitalist globality, it pits irreducible singularities.

This is the reason it is important to understand the position of literature and subjectivity in relation to the new media ecology, even though the excessive transitional fluidity of the present moment does not so much permit the certitude of answers as calls for the radical uncertainty of a growing and nurtured problematization.

Literature and the Fourth Ecology

The term new media ecology is being used here to indicate the emergence, in recent years, of an electronic ecology in the form of the new media of information and communication technologies that treat real objects as potential digital data to be reapproapriated as information. This ecology effectively appears as an alternative and virtual environment-as-home (‘eco’ comes from the Greek ├Âikos for home) into which the subject is being increasingly integrated as an inhabitant-component. The paradoxical (non-)manifestation of this ecology is the cyberspace. The new media are new in relation to the older media such as the TV and the radio insofar as they are not passive but interactive, immersive, networked and decentred, and employ convergence technologies (which allow them to be described as the multimedia). They are new, moreover, in terms of their perpetual self-renewal which is driven by the capitalist-technological requirements of constant upgradation in the face of competitive obsolescence.

By subjectivity is denoted the dynamic configuration of the narrative of the self. As a concept, subjectivity performs a permanent spatio-temporal displacing of the transcendentalist self of the Cartesian rationality and foregrounds the self’s structural vulnerability as much as its agential open-endedness.

There are reasons to posit a “fourth ecology” to add to the three identified by Guattari, namely the environmental, the mental and the social (52-60). Guattari recognizes the tremendous but subtly operative force of the mass media but only as an instrument of the IWC, whereas the new media, while increasingly assimilating and refashioning the older mass media, are peculiar in that they perform the ultimate vanishing trick: they disappear by transforming themselves into the synthetic ecology that envelops the subject as an invisible electronic haze that both mediates and obfuscates through informationalization.

It is interesting, therefore, that the new media should have a tendency to convey only the positive impression of democratic empowerment on account of their interactive functionality. The impression is not altogether illusory but it has to be seen against the cultural, psycho-analytical and deep-political implications of immersion, particularly of simulation, which the convergence technologies produce and which they aim to progressively refine to the point of the indistinguishability of simulation from reality. With digital simulation advancing rapidly to envelop the entire cultural spectrum, verbal as well as non-verbal, the space of culture outside technology is set to progressively diminish to the point where it all but disappears. One probable consequence is that it would render an authentic critique of the hyper-technological culture impossible. Another, and more serious, is that the symbolic cultural environment would be rewritten, or effectively replaced, by the ‘virtual’ electronic environment which would lack the materiality, heterogeneity and humanity of the symbolic environment that has been replaced. The substitution of “materiality” (matter/mater) with digitality is profoundly menacing in that it would be, like so much else, irreversible: humankind is not known to have ever gone back technologically to an earlier period of its history. But there is an even darker question to ponder in this scenario, the question of the constitution of subjectivity in a digitally simulated symbolic. Would it not be a hyper-subjectivity? What would be its nature, if it has any? That this is not merely a hypothetical possibility is evident from the recent appearance of a pathological condition, euphemistically known as the Alternate World Syndrome (AWS), which afflicts large numbers of the victims of Internet Addiction Syndrome (IAD) – the extremely heavy users of ICTs – and is characterized by a hallucinatory state of disconnect from reality induced by prolonged plugging into cyberspace.

The new media are known to be addictive and have, moreover, a tendency to integrate the user/subject into their network. From the wired human being, to the one using blue-tooth technology, to still another who has chips implanted under the skin and plugged into the nervous system, you can see progressive integration of the human being into the electronic information network. The integration proclaims the arrival of the posthuman. Although posthumanism has been both welcomed and condemned, the issues it raises for the fate of subjectivity are too pressing to be set aside for the consideration of future generations. Of these, the principal issue is of confronting the ambivalence of the posthuman so that its implications may be comprehended and the consequences anticipated as far as possible. The neurobiological prostheses that expand the human mind and body may be empowering and emancipatory in many respects but they also signify a higher level of complexity in what Heidegger calls technology’s “enframing” of the human as they rewire the human from the inside (324). Genetic engineering, nanotechnology and cybernetics today represent the frontline technologies operating to re-define, and reify, the human.

Since literature (as we know it) and subjectivity (as we have begun to understand it) are locked in an inevitable relationship, what kind of writing can be foreseen as coming from the posthuman? Would it still include literature (if we care to remember the historical origins of the discursive category called ‘literature’ in humanism, particularly in Western liberal humanism)? We cannot but grant that technological intervention in the form of the new media shall have far-reaching implications for both subjectivity and literature. Already it has not only shattered practically all our received ideas of literature but has also compelled us to confront afresh the question of the possibility as well as the possibilities of literature in the world.

Literature, the New Media and Generalized Writing

The new media, for instance, alter the associations of the literary by relocating literature among a far larger set of cultural phenomena by using the technologies of convergence. These various phenomena come together and compete for our attention on computer terminals and elsewhere. In some instances, literature in cyberspace sheds its exclusive reliance on the verbal arts and integrates the auditory and the visual, rendering the boundaries between the arts and literature ever more indistinct. Flash poetry and fiction are examples of such post-print and post-literary writing. In fact, the presence of the new media has become so commanding today that one has to consider literature in terms also of "remediation" and "premediation" (Grusin). Literature’s passage through the new media, after it has been delivered in the medium of print, runs both ways: forwards as well as backwards. While many literary works are remediated by being recast through the media, not a few anticipate the rites of their passage through the media and hence come into the world premeditated. In the contemporary publishing economy, literary works do sometimes get “done” in such a way as to ensure their reproduction as games, films and TV programmes.

It is in the context of such relocation and reconstitution of the literary that one may consider the diffusion of the literary into “writing” which cyberspace in particular has unleashed. The enormous and yet exponentially growing and diverse writing in cyberspace confers a strange new meaning upon the signifier ‘text’. All writing, including literature, becomes text. Every sign becomes writing. But then, it is writing as digital code. Derrida’s pronouncement (“There is nothing outside the text”) become prophetic again as it re-stirs into life in the digital world of the hypertext and more.

The profusion of writing, the looming dispersion of literature into writing, the reappropriation of writing as digital code: the process disintegrates the canon(s), but it also compels literature to rethink its singularity. Indeed, the arrival/dispersal of literature in cyberspace traces a circular-with-a-twist itinerary: from the ancient Greek drama performed for communities of spectators, literature journeys through printed books intended for the pleasure of solitary reading to reach the computer terminals to be experienced “virtually” in simulation. The spectatorial returns as the spectral. The position of literature in relation to the new media ecology is, thus, not simply a matter of its disembedding from the tradition of print culture and re-embedding in cyberculture, but of the reconstitution of its materiality as spectrality. And it uncannily mirrors the substitution of subjectivity by hyper-subjectivity.

And then there is spectrality without the memorial traces of embodiment – the unauthorised because unauthored writing – produced at the click of the mouse by several essay, poetry and research paper “generators”, the programmes that “generate” different kinds of writing without the direct mediation of human agency. Are these “generators” the signs of things to come, when writing finally breaks completely and actually free of human subjectivity and agency?

Does Literature Have a Future? / Does the Future Have Literature?

In view of this looming prospect, several questions arise. Would it be sufficient to re-affirm literature’s difference from mere ‘writing’, from writing conceived as code? Can the putative “difference” of literature be reaffirmed without evoking its bond with subjectivity? Is it possible to unproblematically evoke that bond in a world in which humanism lies in ruins, thanks to acts of both politics and theory?

It might be of some help to keep in mind a possible distinction – between literature as an institution and literature as an elusive singular experience which the acts of writing and reading seek to capture.

If the space of literature is such as the subject can hardly bring himself to traverse, if it confronts him – always and again – with his limits by returning him to the experience of dying, to the limit experience and beyond (as Blanchot thinks it does), may not literature in cyberspace turn out to be even more potent than it is in print culture?

Just as the immeasurable gulf between literature and subjectivity can be measured, ironically, only in the subject’s experience of literature, literature’s extreme gift -- of solitude and singularity, of the experience of dying -- might be the sole available guarantee against the loss of self in a world in the cusp of change from the human to the posthuman, a world that is otherwise imploding into cyberspace in the slow motion of an infinite present.

But this is contingent upon capitalism failing to breach the speed barrier beyond which neither literature nor subjectivity can survive as outposts of resistance. For there are certain coordinates of space and time, a certain tempo of being, upon which writing, reading and reflection depend. As of now, the capitalist hyper-techno-logic is accelerating and seems set to break the barrier (Wilce).

Unless, of course, our subjectivities are reconfigured to match the emerging temporality and we can produce literature suited to that temporality. Or, as Alan Liu hopes, we comprehend “the laws of cool” and can undermine/subvert with irony (“destructive creation”) the homogenizing global regime of information economy (Liu; Hayles).

The first probability seems more likely, but it has improbably high stakes in humanistic optimism. Moreover, it does not reckon with the historicity of the literary. The second, on the contrary, seems to be based on a perception of history as inevitability and quietly passes over the question of literature (and art) as innovative resistance in order to look for opportunities for resistance in the “given” knowledge-world of informationalism.

But literature has always been, by definition, more than reactive.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. 1982. London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Grusin, Richard. “Premediation.” Criticism 46.1 (2004): 17-39.

Guattari, Felix. The Three Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. 1989. London and New Jersey: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Attacking the Borg of Corporate Knowledge Work: The Achievement of Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool”. Criticism 47.2 (2006): 235-39.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge, 1993. 311-41.

Liu, Alan. “Understanding Knowledge Work”. Criticism 47.2 (2006): 249-60.

Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature? Trans. Bernard Frechtman. UK: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950. 1993. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Thomas, Sue. “ Way to Talk.” Times Higher Education Supplement. 28 October 2005.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso, 1997.

Wilce Hilary. “Young Minds in Hi-Tech Turmoil.” The Tribune. 1 December 2006. Reprinted from The Independent.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma



I am grateful to the Indian Institute for Advanced Study, Shimla for its hospitality that enabled me to write the first draft of this paper during my Associateship in May 2006.


No comments: