Written By: Tavid Mulder and Michelle Rada
A vital and constantly shifting form, the novel is technological in distinctive ways. Thus, the novel can be approached as a site that enables us to think about what technology is and how it functions. At the same time, the explosion of interest in new technologies throws into relief previously unnoticed aspects of the novel. Novel Technologies engages current discussions regarding novel form through the lens of the technological. How, for example, might information models of “sending” and “receiving” transform our understanding of affect, identity, point of view, and narration as configured within and by the novel? Is the novel’s formal architecture comparable or assimilable to other technologies? To what extent can novelistic narrative forms be considered “adaptive” technologies? How are outdated or emerging technologies thought differently when read as emerging alongside, rather than in opposition to, the novel?
Novel Technologies aims to open up a conversation about how such questions might enable us to detach the novel from modes of analysis predicated on discourse. From reconsiderations of the dynamism of matter to alternative ontologies oriented towards objects; from the appearance of data-oriented critical approaches to investigations of posthumanism and the “anthropocene,” contemporary literary theory is turning away from discourse as an all-encompassing frame. While the insights and practices of deconstruction and poststructuralism are still present, recent theoretical currents are exploring new, non-discursive methods of reading and questioning. The symposium investigates the possibilities of disassociating the notion of form from its institutional ties to discourse, and considers what might be gained by reframing the question of literary form as a question of technology and apparatus.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel form functioned alongside industry as a mechanism for capturing and calculating life and its limits. To the Greeks, according to Heidegger, techne meant “to make something appear, within what is present, as this or that, in this way or that way.” From serialization to narrative developments such as stream of consciousness and free indirect style, formal features and their transformations might be read as technological innovations, extensions of and upgrades to the novel’s mode of “bringing forth.” This symposium approaches technology as both interlaced within and in tension with the novel form. How is literary studies itself changed when we consider form under the sign of techne or technology?
PRESENTATIONS & RESPONSE
In his paper, “The Other Panopticon: Technology and Narrative Form in Enlightenment Britain,” Joseph Drury reminds us of the playful dimension of technology and the novel in the eighteenth-century. Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon has left us with an almost dystopian image of a century bent on meticulous control and discipline. But Bentham’s hypothetical construction was not the only Panopticon at the time. Indeed, Panopticons proliferated and linked in a variety of contexts with phantasmagorias, automata and scientific experiments. William Godwin, as Drury outlines, developed a similar theory of the novel, insisting on its radical, emancipatory potential as a technology. The eighteenth-century, in other words, presents an image not of the inescapable origin of modern technological domination of technology, but rather of alternative technologies that encourage play in specific contexts. Rather than Bentham’s Panopticon, therefore, the eighteenth-century novel seems to have more in common with the Panopticon created by the watchmaker and inventor Christopher Pinchbeck and his son John, an elaborate musical machine that provided amusing philosophical representations of the workings of nature, society, and the cosmos. Drury explores this aesthetic and political relationship through the theoretical insights of contemporary philosophers of technology, who acknowledge the contingency and variety of technology’s cultural meanings and effects, but who nonetheless find continuities in the way technology mediates human experience and behavior across different contexts. If the novel’s panoptic machinery was a contingent construction whose social and political effects depended not on any inherent technical qualities but on the context in which it was produced and used, then, according to Godwin and friends, it ought to be possible to transform it into an “engine of truth and reform.”
Laurel Harris’s paper, “A ‘Continuous Performance’: Recording Technologies and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Novel” argued for alternative methods for thinking about the modernist novel’s relationship to emerging technologies of its time, a topic often relegated to thematic analyses that pigeonhole the novel as having a merely symptomatic relation to this or that apparatus. Harris’s paper, on the other hand, seeks alternative forms for thinking about and through the entanglement between the novel and technology, so as not to explain away this complicated partnership through narratives of competition, analogy, or adaptation. Harris argues that representations of memory through representational media like film and the gramophone in the modernist novel do not easily fit concepts of remediation, rejection, or adaptation. Such representations of memory often appeal to the indexical tracing of the event transforming narrative form in the novel as a kindred time-based medium. Harris reads the extension of representational technologies, particularly film, into novel form within three texts—Dorothy Richardson’s long novel Pilgrimage (1915-1967), Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962)—to show the intersections and productive contradictions in their representation of memory through these media. A consideration of this intersection reveals an intertwining of interior and exterior memory that changes representations of identity in the twentieth-century novel.
In “Novel Temporalities and the Beings of Fiction,” R. John Williams presents a challenging, thought-provoking suggestion: what if our most utopian dreams for literature—that literature could be not merely fictional but ontological—had already been realized, but in the hands of transnational corporations? For many years now, corporations have employed professional writers to create “scenarios,” detailed fictional accounts of future situations to which the company may have to adapt. What is most surprising about William’s fascinating example is the attitude corporations take toward these fictions. A scenario should not simply confirm the corporation’s already existing plans and direction; it should challenge the corporation’s assumptions, making it more flexible and open. Corporations, it turns out, take literature very seriously. The uncanny similarities between scenarios and the goals of humanist education may give us pause. If the novel is a technology, what does it do? To what ends can it be put?
In the spirit of academic discussion, Novel Technologies raised numerous questions. What kind of technology is the novel? Machinic? Industrial? Cybernetic? Is such a technology entrenched in oppressive power relations and thus bound to reproduce them? Or could the novel pose potentially emancipatory possibilities to structures of power and domination? Is the relationship between the novel and technology metaphorical, or metonymic? Can we pursue the comparison with technology without sacrificing the literary specificity of the novel? These questions suggest a productive line of inquiry that resonates with the current proliferation of technologies.
The comparison between the novel and technology allows for a different understanding of literature, but it may also contribute to a more nuanced picture of technology. If technology complicates the humanist assumptions underlying our normal conceptions of the novel, literature, in turn, may enable a more humanized notion of technology, wherein technology could appear, as Walter Benjamin proposed, not as second nature but as an intrinsic aspect of a politics that orchestrates playful encounters of humanity and nature.