The Global Novel: Mediations
ENGLISH 826S; LIT 826S; ROMST 827S
Hours: M 5:05-7:45
Nancy Armstrong, Roberto Dainotto
Louis Althusser is known to have said that “ideology represents individuals’ imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence.” Assuming that statement is a pretty good fit for traditional literary realism as well, we feel it is time to rephrase this principle for the global novel — which would go something like this: “the global novel represents individuals’ imaginary relation to forms of mediation.” Rather than refer to life beyond the page as one organized around the home, the workplace, the school, the legal system and so forth, the novels we have in mind aspire to live not only outside the language in which they were written but also beyond the printed page in film, television series, comic books, audiobooks, electronic games, and so forth. In that a good number of these novels quite literally attempt to escape the material confines of the medium, they require us to figure out new procedures for reading them.
Procedures: This course will be taught over Zoom, with seminars taped, questions pre-circulated, and voluntary responses elicited beforehand.
Requirements: In addition to informal class responses, the writing requirement will include a 12-15-page concept essay developed from a repertoire determined by the class in two workshop sessions where we determine the glossary of critical concepts most helpful in elucidating the novels.
N.B., Readings marked with * will be available on Sakai; those online have URLs provided below; students are responsible for ordering the rest, preferably the editions indicated.
August 17, 24. Mediations: Publisher, Writer, Critic, Public
- Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 94-136.*
- Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Selected Writings. Howard Eiland, and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press, 2006.*
- Kracauer, Siegfried. “On Bestsellers and their Audience.” The Mass Ornament: Weimer Essays.Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. 89-100.*
August 31. Bad Infinities, False Immediacies
- Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso, 2013. 61-128.*
- Brouillette, Sarah. “The Creative Class and Cultural Governance.” Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2014. 20-33.*
- Jameson, Fredric. “The Aesthetics of Singularity.” New Left Review 92 (2015): 101-32.
September 7. “Dear Reader.” The Novel in the Age of Amazon
- Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. New York: Vintage, 2005.
- McGurl, Mark. “Everything and Less: Fiction in the Age of Amazon.” Modern Language Quarterly 3 (2016): 447-71.
- Felski, Rita. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today 2 (2011): 215-234.
September 14. The Author as Brand
- Cusk, Rachel. Transit: a Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
- Thompson, John B. “Introduction” and "The Rise of Literary Agents." Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. 2nd ed., New York: Plume, 2012.*
- Sinykin, Dan N. “The Conglomerate Era: Publishing, Authorship, and Literary Form, 1965–2007.” Contemporary Literature 4 (2017): 462-91.
- Pugh, Sheenagh. “Introduction” and "What Else and What If: Sequels, Prequels, Crossovers, Missing Scenes and AUs." The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in Literary Context. Bridgend, UK: Seren Books, 2005.*
September 21. The Narrator as Mediator
- McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage, 2005.
- Thon, Jan-Noël. “The Narrator as a Transmedial Concept.” Transmedial Narratology and Contemporary Media Culture. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2016. 125-166.*
- McClanahan, Anne. “Credit, Characterization, Personification.” Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2017. 55-95.*
September 28. Seriality
- Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.
- Broe, Dennis. “Serial Aesthetics.” The Birth of Binge: Serial TV and the End of Leisure. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019. 137-172.*
October 5. The Romantic Web
- Kehlmann, Daniel. Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. Trans. Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Vintage, 2011.
- Illouz, Eva. “Romantic Web.” Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.*
October 12. Transmediality
- Saviano, Roberto. Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. Virginia Jewiss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. (Screen film and at least one episode of the television series.)
- Bolter, J. David, and Richard Grusin. Introduction” and “Theory.” Remediation: Understanding New Media.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 2-87.*
- Elliott, Jane. “Sovereign Capture.” The Microeconomic Mode: Political Subjectivity in Contemporary Popular Aesthetics. New York: Columbia UP,
October 19. This is not a Zombie Novel
- Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 2012. (Screen Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.)
- Esposito, Roberto, and Timothy Campbell. “The Immunization Paradigm.” Diacritics 2 (2006): 23-48.*
- Martin, Theodore. “Crime Fiction and Black Criminality.” ALH 4 (2018): 703-729.*
October 26. This is not a Graphic Novel
- Pajak, Frédéric. Uncertain Manifesto. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: New York Review of Books, 2019.
- Didi-Huberman, Georges. “The Image as Phantom.” The Surviving Image. Harvey L. Mendelsohn. University Park: Penn State UP, 2016. 1-66.*
November 2. Workshop I: discussion of abstracts, to be submitted F October 23.
November 9. Discussion: student questions and comments to be submitted by F November 6.
November 16. Workshop II: 5-6 page draft of final paper due by Th November 25 at 5 PM.
Mediations: A Glossary of Useful Critical Concepts
Collaborators: Anvita Budhraja, Effie Gianitsos, Chad Heller, Mikhail Kleynman, Victor Jeong, Matthew Thomas, Carson Welch, Yue Yu, and Luoshu Zhang
- I. Brand
- II. Curation
- III. Immediacy
- IV. Immunity
- V. Internet Subject
- VI. Intervals
- VII. Prosthesis
- VIII. Seriality
- IX. Singularity
- X. Works Cited
In claiming the predominance of space over time in the era of late capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes that the conclusion we must take from this is “plain … in our time all politics is about real estate … from the loftiest statecraft to the most petty maneuvering around local advantage” (130). Building from Jameson here, one could say that the contemporary global novel too seems fixated on real estate. Rachel Cusk’s Transit is organized around the writer-narrator’s renovation of her new London townhome, while Tom McCarthy’s Remainder can be read as a parable of gentrification in Brixton. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One inverts this paradigm from the view of the gentrified, narrated by a protagonist who is priced out of his dream life in New York City, able to return only when the city is overrun in a zombie apocalypse. And Roberto Saviano’s crime novel Gomorrah nearly fetishizes the centrality of Campania’s “builders,” saying that “every economic empire that arises in the south passes through the construction business” (214).
But what makes this real estate desirable? What, for example, do the narrators in Remainder or Transit try to achieve by remodeling and renovating? Why does Zone One’s Mark Spitz wax poetic about always having wanted to live in Manhattan? My contention is that the term ‘brand’ is what these novels are theorizing in their treatment of real estate. Dependent no doubt on cheap rent, these neighborhoods, regions, or apartment buildings nonetheless require some curation of their image, a desirable idea that can then be bought and sold. I place this desirable idea, or spatialized meaning encapsulated in a brand, within a genealogy that begins with Karl Marx’s commodity fetish and is clarified by Walter Benjamin’s aura. I also turn to David Harvey’s more recent work on rent monopolies to understand how brand attempts to compensate for a product’s seemingly diminished claim to authenticity due to its connection to global markets. How does brand reconstitute real estate’s aura in the age of globalization, and what does the contemporary global novel have to say about it?
A Genealogy of Brand
Brand no longer corresponds to just the mark on cattle or prisoners of the state. Contrary to its etymology in burning objects or the burns made by such objects, brand is now characterized by its impermanence and indeterminacy; rather than denoting ownership, it connotes value. Identifying this shift as feature of commodification, Marx uses a fictional character, the séance table, to illustrate how an object with a rather simple use-value takes on a harder-to-pin-down “mystical character” at the moment of its production as a commodity (164). Marx writes:
The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own accord. (163-64)
The figure of the table points us toward the dual nature of the commodity, with a tension between the materiality of use-value and the abstraction of exchange-value. But Marx is also referencing here the spiritualist fad in the 1850s where groups at séances sought to ‘turn tables’ or make them dance. The emphasis then, for Marx, is that the mystical component of the commodity form — fetishism — is a trick “far more wonderful” than anything readers would experience at their local séance. As its own sort of magic, fetishism conceals the social relations between producers at the level of the individual, presenting them rather as social relations mediated at the level of the product, or commodity.
The “objective appearance” of fetishism allows the misreading of exchange value as a natural property of a commodity, obscuring its actuality as a relative value derived from an instance of labor. The value society places on crude oil, Armani jeans, or New York City real estate is just that — societal — and doesn’t correspond to material characteristics of the things themselves. Indeed, “the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity” (165). Certainly it seems that Transit’s narrator buys her apartment less for its physical qualities than its “very desirable” location, or some other association that otherwise outweighs its “virtually uninhabitable” condition (8). Or as Saviano differently notes, a seafood restaurant’s location by Naples’s port fails to “mean anything in terms of quality” (9). Either way, just as the labor embodied in the commodity is hidden from view by the “objective appearance” of the commodity fetish, so too are the heterogeneous qualities of the commodity severed from its status as such. “Value,” Marx writes, “does not have its description branded on its forehead” (167). The same can be said for the commodity. Cut off from its particular properties, use-values, or historicity, the commodity is freely re-inscribed and revalued according to the logic of the marketplace.
This process is explained in the first chapter of Gomorrah, where Saviano identifies the port of Naples as part of the System’s criminal accumulation: “Everything passes through here,” he writes of the port—or more specifically, 1.6 million tons of Chinese consumer products annually (4, 7). Saviano is concerned with uncovering the social relations implied by “the clothes young Parisians will wear for a month,” which means looking at a product’s trajectory on the global supply chain: “Half-born in the middle of China, they’re finished on the outskirts of some Slavic city, refined in northeastern Italy, packaged in Puglia or north of Tirana in Albania, and finally end up in a warehouse somewhere in Europe … Every fragment of the journey … finds its fixed point in Naples” (6-7). If we take Saviano’s point that the commodity is divorced from its own historicity and conditions of its production — how then are commodities seen? Saviano writes:
As unsold merchandise piles up, new items—genuine, false, semi-false, or partly real—arrive. Silently, without a trace. With less visibility than cigarettes, since there’s no illegal distribution. As if they’d never been shipped, as if they’d sprouted in the fields and been harvested by some unknown hand. Money doesn’t stink, but merchandise smells sweet. It doesn’t give off the odor of the sea it crossed or the hands that produced it, and there are no grease stains from the machinery that assembled it. Merchandise smells of itself. Its only smell comes from the shopkeeper’s counter, and its only endpoint is the buyer’s home. (Saviano 16)
Saviano introduces the problematic that brand attempts to resolve — or put differently, the issue that contemporary global novels like Remainder, Transit, and Zone One understand brand trying to answer. What is lost when merchandise doesn’t give off the odor of the sea, or the imprint of the hands that produced it, or the grease stains of the machinery that assembled it?
For Benjamin, the answer is aura. Whereas abstracted exchange-value flattens the materiality of use-value in the commodity form, and fetishism hides the sociality and labor intrinsic to commodity production behind an “objective appearance,” the art object suffers from a crisis of authenticity due to the technological advances enabling its reproduction. Antithetical to this mass reproduction, aura is the art object’s claim to authority via authenticity, enmeshed in what Benjamin calls the “fabric of tradition” (223). The historical value of the art object, its unique authenticity, is based then in ritual (e.g. religious art)—for Benjamin, the “original use value” (224). Marx’s positing of use- and exchange-value in terms of the commodity form is reframed by Benjamin, who finds “cult-value” associated with ritual increasingly displaced by what he terms “exhibition-value,” exemplified by photography and film and characterized by its “incidental” status as artwork (225). And it should be emphasized here that aura isn’t limited to the art object. The destruction of an object’s aura through the production of copies entails the “shattering of tradition” and historicity which, as Benjamin puts it, “is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art” (221).
Indeed, for Cusk’s London this process is long underway. The narrator’s ex-boyfriend, Gerard, still occupies the once-cheap London flat that he and the narrator used to share fifteen years prior. While they catch up on a walk through their old neighborhood, Gerard bemoans an apparent loss of authenticity in London, remarking: “There’s too much irony. You can’t be a poseur here—everything is already an imitation of itself” (26). Pointing to an example, he continues, “even the pub is ironic” (27). Cusk’s narrator seems to agree, saying that “the once-sordid building [is] now a refurbished allusion to its own non-existent history—the force of continuity these days acting as a favourable wind” (27). Though Cusk refrains from offering more detail on the personal significance of the old building, the “dismal establishment that had once stood on this spot,” the suggestion is that a new bar has sprung up where their old haunt was—symptomatic, Gerard claims, of the “off-whitewash of gentrification…happening everywhere, even in [their] own lives” (31). Similar to Benjamin on technological reproduction, Gerard’s objection isn’t “the principle of improvement itself but the steady leveling, the standardising that these improvements seemed to entail” (31). For Gerard, the city is largely a lost cause for its lack of aura and “the only authentic experiences that remain” are found in the countryside, like his several weeks-long hike of the Pennine Way in northern England (31).
To restate an earlier question from Gomorrah: What is lost when merchandise doesn’t give off the odor of the sea or show the grease stains of the machinery that assembled it? Or in Transit: What is unpleasant about the pub’s “refurbished allusion to its own non-existent history” or displaced by the “off-whitewash of gentrification?” I argue that brand compensates for a displacement of aura, or a product’s diminished claim to authenticity and uniqueness. Brand seizes upon historical traces, discarded use-values, and cultural notions of authenticity—even as it necessarily undermines it, homogenizes it. This is the tension identified by Gerard and Cusk’s narrator—for them, the refurbished pub’s brand is too gauche, too obvious in the way that it falsely claims the historicity of the previous establishment. Brand also serves to give Saviano’s merchandise its value, whether that claim is “genuine, false, semi-false, or partly real (16). But if ‘brand’ is a contradictory process of making meaning or value, why is it particularly tied to the issue of real estate in Transit, Remainder, and Zone One?
To answer, I want to look at Harvey’s more recent work on rent monopolies before further taking up the question of how these contemporary global novels reconceptualize brand. Dealing explicitly with Marx on the commodity and implicitly with Benjamin on aura, Harvey identifies two basic forms of rent monopoly based on a private owner’s “exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradeable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable” (395). The first form is the extraction of monopoly rent through indirect value, drawing on the special qualities of a commodity or place: a vineyard that produces extraordinary wine, to use Marx’s example, or the tourism’s industry’s use of Westminster Abbey, to use Harvey’s (395). In the second form, is the extraction of direct value by trading the thing itself rather than some idea of that thing; Harvey points out that the vineyard producing extraordinary wine could fetch a monopoly price directly through the sale of that land, drawing on the unique qualities that maintain its power as a monopoly. But Westminster Abbey—a one-of-a-kind historical place—Harvey notes, provides an example of that which escapes the direct model.
All this sounds very similar of course to Marx’s commodity fetish and Benjamin’s aura, or Saviano’s merchandise and Cusk’s London. Monopoly rent depends on a heterogenous field of spaces, products, and items with unique qualities, but commodification, as mentioned earlier, is largely a process of homogenization—as Marx writes “[v]alue does not have its description branded on its forehead.” In other words, by cannibalizing difference, markets are left empty handed. Like the reproduction of the painting through the lithograph or Cusk’s remodeled London pub, markets are left with crisis of authenticity. How can the aura reemerge? How can the unique qualities of the vineyard be reconstituted? How do you make a building that has X indeterminable quality, as in Remainder, and why does Cusk choose the overly difficult option in finding an apartment, if not to differentiate these spaces in an extremely competitive field of brands.
Writing from early in the twenty-first century rather than the twentieth, Harvey importantly adds another component to this problematic. Despite the commonplace that competitive free markets are composed of a diverse range of small and mid-sized firms, Harvey claims that markets in the capitalist mode of production contradictorily seek to form monopolies (397). For Harvey the “monopoly power of private property is…both the beginning and the end point of all capitalist activity,” which creates a basic problem: “to keep economic relations competitive enough while sustaining the individual and class monopoly privileges of private property” (397). Historically, local monopolies were protected by spatial divides and high costs of transportation. But like the technological means of reproduction that threaten aura in the early 1900s, the international communication and transportation networks of globalization destroy those previous spatial protections, putting monopoly rent into crisis. In other words, Harvey reminds us of the issue underpinning the Jameson statement that begins this essay, which identifies the reason why globalization assumes literary form by spatializing time. Just as Benjamin responds to the problem of the forms of mediation specific to time, the novels on which I focus respond to the classic dilemma of markets, which holds as true for books as for real estate and Armani jeans in the early twentieth century.
In sum, brand is necessary for landlords, publishers, or any other sort of producer to achieve a monopoly claim on a given market. Brand can manifest as the label on a pair of bootleg Armani jeans, the just-right smell of frying liver wafting from the apartment downstairs, or the tune of the piano from the building across the way; it helps monopoly rent grapple with the problematic of globalization through claims to uniqueness, authenticity, and savvy marketing—a grappling that is, as Harvey states, “an effect of discourse” (401).
Brand, or Real Estate’s Aura in the Age of Globalization
For the narrator of Remainder, it is not enough to buy an apartment building in Brixton and fill it with residents. For him, such a building wouldn’t seem real or authentic and would be mired in the same cordite taste that accompanies other non-authentic objects in McCarthy’s London. Instead, the narrator’s building needs a set of exacting details that constitute a brand. Laying out his specifications to a real estate agent in the beginning of the novel, the narrator says: “It’s not unusual features that I’m after … [i]t’s particular ones” (78). Soon enough these features appear to the narrator vividly in a dream:
…the concierge’s cupboard and the staircase with its worn floor, the black-and-white recurring pattern in it, the oxidizing wrought-iron banisters, the black handrail with its spikes … the pianist’s door and the door of the lady who cooked liver, the spot beside it where she placed her rubbish as I passed her, my own flat above her with its open kitchen and its plants, its bathroom with a cracked wall and a window that looked out across a courtyard to a building with red roof tiles and black cats. (McCarthy 99)
In order to achieve this vision, the narrator seizes upon and makes use of the particular qualities of what he perceives to be his building’s “faded grandeur” while simultaneously erasing much of its present identity (104). The “small black man” working the front desk, for one, “is more of a porter than a concierge” and can be replaced by a “middle-aged and pudgy woman” who better fits his notion of a concierge (105). Other features of the building either get a detail correct but demand an overhaul of the structure, or have the proper dimensions but need the details filled in—a banister, for example, that is “too new” or a floor patter that “wasn’t right” (105).
Nailing down these details isn’t as simple as the narrator initially makes out. In one scene, he harangues his plasterer Kevin as he fashions the bathroom wall crack, telling him it is “not quite it” and should be “more fleshy (128-29). Frequently, the narrator’s renovation challenges center on achieving a retrofitted patina of age: “The hallway had to be scuffed down with sandpaper and smeared with small amounts of grease-diluted tar. The banisters had to be blasted with vaporized ice to make them oxidize. And then the windows were too crisply transparent…” (130). Finally, when it comes to putting the building into action (or in a sense, bringing it to market) some details are realized according to the narrator’s vision while others go awry—the liver, for one, “still had that slightly acrid edge, like cordite” (152). This ambivalent position, where the narrator’s vision of his perfect brand is always just out of reach, always deferred, demonstrates the limits of what a brand can achieve. The construction of a perfectly unique brand is doomed to fail because it is at odds with reproducibility. It recalls the problematic of brand that I outlined earlier through Harvey: brand at once seeks to provide products with claims of authenticity through differentiation and detail, even as those claims are necessarily undermined and homogenized when they are brought to the globalized market.
In a shift from the level of developer to consumer, Cusk’s narrator in Transit buys the brand that McCarthy’s narrator tries to reconstruct in Remainder. Like the liver lady downstairs, Cusk’s narrator has her own “foul, meaty smell” wafting in from the basement unit (44). Or, like the sounds of the piano that McCarthy’s narrator reenacts by hiring a pianist, she has the “faltering sounds of a trombone coming through the kitchen wall, as they always did at this time of day,” thanks to the daughter of an “international family” who lives next door—“[i]t’s these single-skin buildings,” the builder gripes (51). More details abound: an old apple tree, in spite of appearances, bears tasty fruit and the professor-neighbors make it into pies; and a “shriveled, hobbling dog” urinates twice a day in the back garden (38-39). Upon looking out her new kitchen window for the first time, on that back garden, the narrator presents readers with a laundry list of detail:
There were lengths of torn plastic sheeting and broken furniture, dented saucepans, smashed flowerpots, a rusty bird feeder, a metal clothes line that lay on its side, all matted with rotten leaves; as well as a number of statues, little chipped men with fishing rods, a brown shiny bulldog with drooping jowls, and in the centre of it all the strange fabricated figure of a black angel with lifted wings that stood on a black plinth. (Cusk 38)
What does all these details add up to in a novel that is largely concerned with the ways that—to borrow a phrase from the astrologer in the opening scene—“we have lost the sense of our own significance?” (2). Why does the narrator refuse to heed the head builder’s advice—to sell the dilapidated Victorian with the menacing downstairs neighbors for a profit and move to a modern apartment without any such problems?
Against the narrator’s suggestion that her hands are tied — that despite her budget and the “market conditions” she has to “run with the pack,” or “want what everyone else wanted, even if she couldn’t attain it” — the purchase of her London townhome is nevertheless a choice guided by brand (7-8). Rather than living in a problem-free new home as her builder counsels, or a bourgeois estate like her brother Lawrence, she chooses a fixer-upper in a gentrifying part of London, a council property being sold off at a cut rate because maintenance costs are too high relative to more modern units. These peculiarities and problems associated with her new home lend the narrator a sense of self. Even the liver smell, for example, becomes endearing — in one scene allowing a student, Jane, to open up about her family (139). In another, the redevelopment project becomes a point of conversation on a date, as she admits to feeling a “different reality” where, contrary to her former “powerlessness,” she now yearns for power (198).
For Zone One, brand is rendered through the figure of New York City itself. Whitehead’s novel opens with an epigraph from Benjamin: “The gray layer of dust covering things has become their best part” (1). Indeed, the novel presents a compelling case for the way brand seizes upon and uses historicity, or historical traces and patinas of wear — all well encompassed by Benjamin’s notion here of a “layer of dust,” or the ineluctable evidence of an object’s history. Whitehead’s New York is something of an ur-brand, or a brand whose dynamism exceeds the limitations of what Remainder’s narrator attempts to achieve in Brixton or what Transit’s narrator finds in her dilapidated townhome. The first line of the novel is Mark Spitz’s refrain throughout: “I always wanted to live in New York” (3). Growing up in New Jersey, for Spitz, the city is unlike any other place — an authentic, one-of-a-kind locale distilled in the image of his Uncle Lloyd’s downtown apartment on Lafayette. As he puts it: “It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City” (6).
How does Whitehead’s New York maintain this distinct brand despite waves of historic development, recent gentrification, and apocalypse? In other words, how does the novel present the dynamism of New York as a reconceptualization of brand? Toward the end of Zone One, Spitz marvels at an old storefront on a city street:
Mark Spitz could not fathom how this deathless codger of a storefront had endured the relentless metropolitan renovations. The only answer was that the city itself was as bewitched by the past as the little creatures who skittered on its back. The city refused to let them go: How else to explain the holdout establishments on block after block, in sentimental pockets across the grid? These stores had opened every morning to serve a clientele extinct even before the plague’s rampage, displaying objects of zero utility on felt behind smudged glass, dangling them on steel hooks where dust clung and colonized. Discontinued products, exterminated desires. The city protected them, Mark Spitz thought. The typewriter-repair shop, the shoe-repair joint with its antiquated neon calligraphy and palpable incompetence that warned away the curious, the family deli with its germ-herding griddle: They stuck to the block with their faded signage and ninety-nine-year leases, murmuring among themselves in a dying vernacular of nostalgia. Businesses north and south, to either side of them, sold the new things, the chromium gizmos that people needed, while the city blocks nursed these old places, held them close like secrets or tumors. (223)
Is Whitehead suggesting that New York City is able to maintain its monopoly claim — its brand — by holding onto these historic traces, or in this case the “deathless codger of a storefront.” Even prior to the undead apocalypse, these stores catered to already-extinct customers, at odds with modernity and yet resolute — places like the “typewriter-repair shop, shoe repair joint … the family deli with its germ-herding griddle.” Why does the city maintain them? Indeed, keeping these vestigial places isn’t a given, as we might contrast Spitz’s marvel here with that of Cusk’s London, where the state no longer wants to maintain its old Victorian public housing. For Spitz, the answer is that New York is “bewitched by the past.”
Yet, is this New York brand so impenetrable? In a previous scene, Spitz takes a detour to a tacky chain restaurant he used to frequent with his family in New Jersey, although this location is out of place in bougie Tribeca — “Not in my backyard, it’ll ruin the neighborhood,” Spitz jokes to himself (151). Antithetical to the holdout storefronts, this chain allows Spitz to feel like he “ha[s] been here before and not been here before,” surviving the “Manhattan dimensions” all the same (155). The tacky chain raises the question: Does New York subsume this restaurant into its own brand, or does the corporate chain win out? From Harvey, we know that this tension is constitutive of brand itself, where a brand steps in to compensate for the sameness and standardization that globalization necessarily entails. For Whitehead’s New York, despite the potency of the family deli or typewriter repair shop, it seems that the city’s unique brand doesn’t win out. When Spitz approaches Uncle Lloyd’s building at the end of the novel, he finds the building is gone and the New York nighttime feels “alien and unnerving” (235). This feeling is clarified in his final moments before going out into the horde of dead: “He’d always wanted to live in New York but that city didn’t exist anymore.”
To close, brand is a useful concept for thinking with the contemporary global novel because it organizes a constellation of ideas, some of which at times seem disparate. As Benjamin hitched his notion of aura to a historical moment, that of mechanical or technological reproduction, brand is hitched to globalization. How is value composed in a world full of things that resemble Saviano’s “genuine, false, semi-false, or partly real” merchandise? What drives Cusk’s narrator to move into an old Victorian public housing unit, rather than a new place at a lesser cost? Why does Remainder’s narrator painstakingly redevelop his Brixton building instead of flipping it? What concept articulates Zone One’s obsession with living in New York? In order to answer these questions, to think about globalization and the novel — or the contemporary global novel—we should consider brand as a point of departure.
Global space in the contemporary novel is a deliberately crafted and carefully constructed setting for human action that reveals a concerted, programmatic effort to give meaning to the space the novel inhabits. The term “curation” springs to mind as it’s a term for a very particular guardianship or supervision of preserved and exhibited objects (OED). In other words, the creation of space through curation involves the selection and exhibition of specific objects — the relationship among which is thematic or conceptual rather than personal or chronological. In “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” Fredric Jameson describes the moment in history inaugurated by the postmodernism of the 1970s and 1980span as one defined by new spatial configurations, or constellations of distinct objects in a particular space. From this it follows that aesthetic space is very much a curator’s project, an installation or a conceptual space, and curation, therefore, a practice and technique distinctive to late twentieth and twentieth-first century literary space, including the novel. Today’s artistic space can be distinguished from the traditional artistic spaces of the home and the city street, because it announces itself as an intellectual space and one that transcends individuals and so is neither personal nor accidental.
The globalized urban spaces in which the action of so many contemporary novels takes place becomes such an artistic space, which comes under the charge of the contemporary author-as-curator. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, both published in 2005 curate two such global spaces, specific spaces in London and Japan respectively. To see these settings in two of Jameson’s curated installations requires the reader to examine their construction as such: what concepts control the selection and arrangement of object and how are we to understand their relation to the figure of the curator within the novel, as well as the author and the publication apparatus that ensures that these spatial configurations can travel beyond the nation and reach a global readership. The commercial aspect of curating contemporary artistic space is immediately evident—from Jameson’s claim that the “strategy” for the curation of singular intellectual spaces derives from “curation’s” roots in an institution like the museum, institutions that are ultimately commercial. One indeed encounters the marketing of such global spaces themselves in these novels, both of which suggest that the term “brand” is now a way of conceptualizing such spaces. That is to say, the contemporary novel transforms certain global spaces into a branded space identified with a unique confluence of specific local objects to form globally identifiable markers. The branding process links certain spaces to the author who has curated them for global distribution.
The postmodern moment rejects what Jameson calls the “universal generic of art” and instead finds aesthetic value in name-brand combinations or constellations of strange and different objects assembled at identifiable national spaces in the global circulation of novels (107). Yet, the commercial aspect of such an endeavor — in other words, its inseparability from the institution that houses it and gives it value — becomes evident with the author’s branding of these spaces as a space to be experienced in a certain way. In this respect, we can see these curated spaces as installations, a singular amalgam of distinctive objects that links that space to the particular events in the novel that lend commercial value. As such an installation, the global city can be understood as the convergence of two opposing forces: 1) the force of global distribution of information that lends a particular city in the mass appeal that attracts a global audience, and 2) a carefully delineated localism that entices the reader with the sense that certain things and not others can happen — become intelligible — there. It might once have been possible to attribute the balancing act that keeps these two forces in equilibrium to the author (e.g., Hemingway’s relation to Kilimanjaro), but in light of today’s publishing industry, one must hold the apparatus of agents, editors, publishers, publicists, reviewers, and marketing and distribution specialists responsible for the novel’s continuing ability to generate both financial capital and cultural capital. Dan Sinykin explains what he calls “the conglomerate era of publishing” as an extensive process (that arguably begins with creative writing programs) that brands certain literary works as sources of capital for the media conglomerates that now own most of the major publishing houses. According to Sinykin, this apparatus ensures that “the contemporary [novel]” can and will be identified with its “attempts to negotiate its complicity with the market” (464-65). To meet the economic aspirations inseparable from mass appeal, a novel must make its presentation of global spaces instantly recognizable and accessible to a broad cross-section of readers--which means that a novel can assert a city’s particular identity only to a point after which the uniformity characterizing all such global spaces will obscure the difference between New York, London, Mumbai, or Istanbul. It requires an act of translation to turn native familiarity into global recognition and, arguably, a reduction or simplification of city space to incorporate it in a differential system of such spaces. To counter the tendency of markets to turn global space into what Jameson calls a “universal generic,” literary city space will demonstrate a curated localism. This “brand” of localism does not resist the uniformity of globalism so much as repackage it for the market. In Sinykin’s words, localism satisfies a particular “reality hunger” for the space—a particular reality that is both immediately recognizable and encountered at a distance (475). This flexibility and the hypermediated relation to any particular city space provides the wiggle room for contemporary novelists to mark certain global spaces as their own.
By describing the postmodern figure of the curator as the “demiurge” of this new kind of art, Jameson implicates the novel in the creation of a new kind of space and in the idea of its ownership and mastery of that space (110). The relationship between the curator and the curated space significantly modifies our understanding of the relationship between the author of the contemporary novel and the global city space that provides its setting for human action. In other words, the author-as-curator is both creating the global city and conveying their sense of ownership over it. Two results follow from this adjustment of the author’s putative role. The first is to replace representation as traditionally understood with this act of curation that creates a distinctive aesthetic space. The reader does not confront the city as a substitute for an actual object or place but as an artifact that exists independently of the city itself. This is not to say that global spaces so textualized cannot be mapped onto the actual spaces whose name and features it shares but rather to insist that the global city we encounter in the contemporary novel is its own singular space with an existence that does not extend beyond the novel in which it is found. Why then must the city in text share a name, features, and other characteristics of an existing physical space outside that text—which is to say, why must this creation be beholden to a certain veracity, a place in the global order itself. If the city as produced by the novel observes a curatorial logic as its author carefully and deliberately chooses bits and pieces to bring together in the space in the text, then why must this conceptual space be dependent on its peculiar relationship to an actual city or place in the material world? City, place, neighborhood names are the quintessentially recognizable features that maintain this relationship, but the need for certain recognizable features is just that—in order for the city to become a commercially viable curated space (a brand) — it must be recognizable in some way. To generate mass appeal, a place in text must bear precise resemblances to the global city that readers recognize as linked to its name.
Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder presents the city of London through a veritable barrage of particular place names, street names, areas, and landmarks immediately familiar to readers already familiar with London—Peckham, Coldharbour Lane, the Piccadilly tube line, Ruskin Park, Vauxhall, Butler’s Wharf, Knightsbridge (near Harrods), Tower Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. As his narrator moves across the city, he often describes his routes in minute detail, from street to tube station to a specific area or an exact location within the city:
It was still rush hour. I didn’t feel like going back into the tube. Instead, I walked down to the river, slowly, through the back streets of Belgravia. When I got there I walked east, crossed Lambeth Bridge, stepped down onto Albert Embankment, found a bench and sat there for a while looking back out across the Thames. (McCarthy 51)
We must ask ourselves whether, were we to attempt to attempt this path through London, would we have enough information to follow the narrator’s movements. Is following this narrator through London all that dissimilar from following Mrs Dalloway on her walks through Virginia Woolf’s London or tracking the movements of James Joyce’s characters across his Dublin. But once we take account that McCarthy’s narrator hires a company of professionals to comb the city’s neighborhoods street by street for the specific building that he has in mind to renovate, we understand that Remainder performs a very different technique of city-mapping. The narrator teams up with Naz, a character with many features of artificial intelligence, to scan small parts of a map of London into the computer, isolate its streets and street-corners, and then have his underlings traverse the actual streets while marking their locations and buildings on a map of the city designed for this purpose along. This extremely close relationship between the tactical experience of the city and its distillation as the strategic map of the city designed to serve the narrator’s needs reinforces the map’s adherence to the material city even as the novel constructs its own space of London for itself.
A similar mapping strategy determines the course of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore as the fifteen-year-old protagonist tries to decide where to flee from his paternal home. In this case, the global city is not bounded by the limits of the city but expands along with the action of the novel from Tokyo, as it turns various sections of Japan into constructed space, as his narrator explains,
Shikoku, I decide. That’s where I’ll go. There’s no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that’s where I should head. The more I look at the map — actually every time I study it — the more I feel Shikoku tugging at me. It’s a long way south of Tokyo, separated from the mainland by water, with a warm climate. (Murakami 10)
While the plot takes the reader through places in time, both imagined and presumably real, the action takes place in physical locations that could, one assumes, be traced on a standard map of Japan. In this, the protagonist’s flight, and in the later road trip that Mr Hoshino and Nakata undertake, routes, bridges, and towns on the way are described with the same level of detail as that of the London that McCarthy’s narrator systematically traverses.
Specificity and exacting detail thus seem key to their novels’ representation of the global city —an intensely local confrontation, an extremely well-marked urban space. Yet, there is a point beyond which specificity, in fact, serves to efface the markers that particularize these urban spaces. McCarthy’s narrator meets his friend Catherine at a pub named Dogstar; he meets Naz for the first time at Blueprint Café; he takes a homeless man to a Greek restaurant by the Thames; on the corner where Frith Street cuts across Old Compton Street, he visits a “Seattle-themed coffee shop” (McCarthy 52). The question then arises, do these named places actually exist (there’s nothing in their naming that suggests they do) and exist in the precise locations mentioned in the text? In other words, is there a pub named Dogstar in Brixton or a Starbucks on the corner of Frith and Compton? In the contemporary age of technology, is it not difficult to determine the answers to these questions but no matter what the answer, the argument is twofold? First, it does not matter whether the pub or café is real because such localisms are curated to feel they are — because McCarthy has arranged certain minutiae of London to lend those locations a veracity independent of whether it actually exists or not, and second, he has selected places — a Greek restaurant in a Northern European country, an international coffee shop, a crowded pub on a weekend night — that transform London’s local spaces into a recognizable urban space, the known trappings of a global city.
Murakami’s novel features two distinct forms of such effacement. The first, much like in Remainder, is to remove the distinctive mark of local features even while maintaining a sufficient level of specificity to make that space recognizable to most readers — a highway rest area, a bus that traverses across cities and towns, a “typical business hotel,” the YMCA, even the Komura Memorial Library, a privately owned library that is turned into a public space through the donations of its former owners. Once again, here is an act of generalization, a stripping away of specificity in order to make the infrastructure of the novel accessible to all. In fact, during their break at a highway rest stop, Sakura underscores this uniformity to Kafka — the instant recognizability of these kinds of spaces: “’What does it matter what it’s called?’” she continues. ‘You’ve got your toilets and your food. Your fluorescent lights and your plastic chairs. Crappy coffee. Strawberry-jam sandwiches’” (Murakami 22). On Murakami’s website, the novel’s English translator responds to a question about how Japan has been depicted in the novel by indicating that “the sterile anonymity of highways and roadside rest areas” in Murakami’s novels is indeed a realistic depiction of “civilization.” The second instance is relatively minor, but the function of this detail provides a framework within which to question the act of effacing the local specificity of a location. In the US Army Intelligence Reports at the beginning of the novel, the location where children were mysteriously rendered unconscious occurs is presented as “[deleted] town, [deleted] county,” in this way indicating what has been redacted as classified information from official documents that are being made available to the public. Sakura’s question, “What does it matter what it’s called?” resounds here, as the novel asks us to imagine the process of “unmarking” local spaces. The specificities that would localize the urban space of the novel is [deleted] city in order that it can be globally circulated.
How does the reader confront such conceptual space, a “bizarre object,” as Jameson calls it? (108) To put it another way, what kind of reader do these spaces (and their novels) address? To put it another way, what kind of reader will recognize these known trappings of a global city? The sufficiently localized and globalized space requires a reader with a certain form of cultural competence — one that can identify local markers in a global space, even if that identification occurs at a curated distance. One way to look at these spaces is to see their curation as a universalization process — a conscious distillation, on the part of the author in collaboration with the publishing apparatus — of a city into places with inhabitants that any city-dweller will recognize. In such a case, branding the urban space involves a knowing wink to its reader — a sense of being in on the local reference (e.g., the “Seattle-themed coffee shop”). Or perhaps it would be more productive to ask what forms of cultural competence that readers of global novels might not need, because the global space’s localism has already been translated into a reference accessible to the “global” reader. Just such a translation can be seen in McCarthy’s decision not to name the local Greek restaurant in London (had he done so, only people intimately familiar with London would know the restaurant and the national cuisine it features) and instead maintain a level of anonymity that does not alienate those who are encountering the city of London at a distance. Thus, in a space that is being understood as an installation — as a coming together of fragments, a collage in time — the reader perhaps establishes coherence through this push-and-pull relation of local and global, a process of tracing patterns through the decipherable markers of the global space presented at a cognitive distance.
For Murakami, however, there seems to be a contradiction in his approaches because, on the one hand, he writes on his website that “in a novel, if the story is appealing, it doesn’t matter much if you don’t catch all the detail. I’m not too familiar with the geography of nineteenth century London, for instance, but I still enjoy reading Dickens.” Here, he demonstrates an unwillingness to engage the distinction between Japanese references and those that are clearly American or European. At the same time, the website itself is part of Murakami’s curated literary brand and contains, for Kafka, an archive of resources to complement and, effectively, decode parts of the book. This archive contains images of Japanese food (eel) or magazines (Taiyo) or less familiar Japanese writers (Soseki) mentioned in the book and an entire playlist created by Murakami for the many references to specific songs and musicians in the novel. Thus, despite his confidence that readers will be able to engage with his novel with a sanguinity that rejects questions of complete understanding or its lack, here is an effort to translate his novel’s constellation of objects, people, names, and things into a more accessible space. Here, readers encounter a curated space that brings together the specificity of place through references to Japanese neighborhoods or city infrastructure (like trains) or recognizable food — charmingly specific and yet not alienatingly so … and intensely commercial.
When Jameson uses “demiurge” to characterize the curator of these spaces, the implication is that the author who has curated this city has left his brand on it, implying that one contemporary novelist’s London is not the same London as another novelist’s. To turn that phrase around, we might say that the global space created in (and belonging to) a novel is specific to its author and becomes their particular brand, a trademark or personal cityscape. Jameson senses something sinister in this move inasmuch as every element of the collection of things and people is subsumed under the institution, of which the curator becomes an embodiment, “its allegorical personification” (110). By the same token, however, one could argue that the curious particularity of the city that becomes a novelist’s brand comes to embody the curator, or novelist-surrogate who curates the space within the novel, not the other way around. That the city space in a novel can take the place of the actual city in the global imagination of the readership, depends on whether or not that space assumes the status of the novelist’s signature. This was of course true of Balzac’s Paris, Dickens’s London, or Joyce’s Dublin, but the forces of globalization, including the global marketing of novels, has accelerated the process of displacement, by which cities turn the tables on their authors and assume their identity.
McCarthy’s Remainder provides an excellent example of this phenomenon: the recurring cab office near the phone box, from which the narrator first calls his lawyer and around which his third re-enactment (the first of the shootings) takes place. In the first instance, McCarthy describes “the caged façade of a cab office just beside the phone box. Movement Cars, it said; Airports, Stations, Light, Removals, Any Distance” (McCarthy 10). The narrator wonders what Light on its own could mean but shortly after realizes that he had misread the sign — there was no comma between Light and Removals. It read: Light Removals. Nearly a section of the novel later, the narrator returns to that area for a re-enactment and once again, the novel tells us that the sign of the cab office said: Airports, Stations, Light, Removals, Any Distance. Undoubtedly, in the spaces that the narrator has constructed for his particular re-enactment needs, one expects to see his curatorial mind establish gaps that assign spaces to various events. This cab office with its painted sign is part of the city of London, the setting for the events that transform city space into something like an objectified version of what might have been his personal memory — and even then, despite the trance state that takes hold when the narrator embarks on another re-enactment , he marks another section of London the city as his own. So imbedded is the narrator’s repurposed city space in the actual spaces of London that one cannot be surprised to find the sign reappearing once again with the mistakenly added comma. Finally, when that street on his way back to his apartment obstruct his path and demand a re-enactment of a street shooting, the narrator again rereads the sign: “It was Light Removals, not Light then Removals: I knew that already, but had just forgotten that I knew” (211). The novel itself seems to “forget” with the narrator and remembers the mistake only when he does. In this respect, the city behaves as an extension of the narrator-protagonist.
The city has a sense of familiarity that seems virtually independent of London itself, which seems to provide the setting and inspiration for staging the events of the story. Made up of the kind of detail that combines specificity with anonymity, the various spaces McCarthy carves out of London in the events composing the plot could as well exist anywhere in the world. Their singularity depends not on the particularity of such spaces but on their relationship to the narrator and his effort to create a personal memory from scratch out of the materials at hand:
The intersection by the telephone box from which I’d phoned Marc Daubenay came and went on the periphery of my attention … then it was the tyre shop and café where the men had watched me as a I’d jerked back and forth on the same spot in the street after setting out to meet Catherine; then, before the ex-siege zone, the street that ran parallel to the street perpendicular to mine. Then I was home. (71)
Nothing specific to London marks the pitstops in his route through a backstreet in the section of London called Brixton, nothing specific to Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean heritage. Together with minute details that make these various sites at once absolutely singular and absolutely generic, the repetition of “I” reinforces our sense that this is his space to buy up, inhabit and renovate with his own sense of what the past might feel like if he could actually remember it. We might indeed see this as a dramatization of Murakami’s description of how he comes up with the setting for his novels, again from the mini-archive in Kafka on his website: “When I write a novel,” he writes on the site, “I put into play all the information inside me.” As a globally renowned novelist and a translator himself, Murakami undoubtedly knows enough of a “global culture” of references he can tap into and is savvy enough to balance Japan’s particularity with Western references. This translates into a branded Japan, which combines recognizable Japanese dishes like udon, sake, tofu, sushi, and chicken cutlet with Beethoven, Duke Ellington, and Hoover vacuum cleaners. So, too, we find the myths of Oedipus and Franz Kafka himself sharing space with a contemporary Japanese sports team like Chunichi Dragons and the poetic forms of tanka and haiku. The novel mentions specific places as Ichikawa and Hokkaido on its cognitive map along with such concepts as “city wards” and “prefectures” that are generically urban. At the Komura Memorial Library, Murakami’s protagonist reads The Arabian Nights, a bildungsroman by Japanese writer named Soseki, and a biography of Napoleon, establishing the library as a microcosm of the localized global space of his Murakami’s curated Japan.
In his essay “Genesis of the Media Concept,” John Guillory marks a problem that has haunted theories of mediation since well before the twenieth century: a “philosophical confusion ... between mediation as an abstract, even logical process and medium as material technology” (338). Recent and disparate work in media theory makes one wonder whether anything is not a medium in at least one of these two senses, and indeed whether this conceptual dissolution is itself symptomatic of a lifeworld ever-more governed by processes that can be subsumed under the title of “mediation.” Attempts to grasp the contemporary world through the concept of mediation in any case evince the possibility of relating both media theory and cultural forms of mediation — as both “logical process” and “material technology”— to their historical and socio-economic conditions.
That “immediacy,” on the other hand, possesses a similar historical valence is perhaps not as obvious. But precisely such an understanding of immediacy has traversed many attempts to map the historical relations between forms of mediation and reification. Before reaching these attempts, it is worth pointing out the difficulties that specifically accompany the “media concept” (and the “immediacy” concept) in the Marxist tradition, which will primarily be considered here. Marxist uses of the Hegelian concept of “mediation” (Vermittlung) have transformed it from a negation of conceptual immediacy (Unmittelbarkeit) to a historical process — labor — that structures historical subjects’ relation to the objective world. In either case, any given totality is only accessible through an intermediary: though conceivable, the former can never be grasped all at once. It is in this sense that, while the need in the early twentieth century to theorize emergent “mass media” upset these conceptual schema by locating the more general processes of mediation in material communicative technologies, it also provided the opportunity for the (albeit local) reconciliation of these conflicting ideas. Though mediation still extended beyond technological reproducibility, it could also mean the material technology through which the totality is grasped and of which that totality is itself partially composed.
In his “artwork essay,” Walter Benjamin provided precisely such a theory connecting the technological reproducibility of culture to that of commodity production via the concepts of mediation and immediacy. Across its many versions, the essay maintained that the technological mediation of artworks entailed the destruction of their “here and now,” their aura, which provided for Benjamin the standard of immediate experience prior to the extension of the technical means of industrial production over the realm of culture. Whereas in cultures of manual production the artwork’s “access” to history was inseparable from such experience, this access wanes with the advent of technological reproducibility, especially through photography and film. Manual labor had inscribed uniqueness in the object itself, granting it an authenticity that waned after the technologization of production. Technological mediation in the realm of culture is thus part of the same process that defines the mediation of labor. Or, as Jasper Bernes puts it, “the work of art and work in general share a common destiny” (1).
What is most significantly changed by reproducibility, however, is not art — which had long since been reproducible — but the productive quality of perception itself, such that it now “extracts sameness even from what is unique” and disengages the subject from immediate historical experience (105). If, as this essay will suggest, the age of technological reproducibility is over, even as reproducibility persists, it is for the same reason that Benjamin marks the beginning of the age of reproducibility not with the invention of reproduction, but with its installation as a cultural dominant whose influence extends beyond art objects to produce effects at the level of subjectivity. This is due to the priority that, as Jameson points out, Benjamin’s periodizations grant to relations of production (or, in a sense, “logical processes”) over forces of production (“material technologies”) (The Benjamin Files 218 and the foregoing chapter). Despite its focus on a new technical milieu, Benjamin provides a framework for thinking the historicity of mediation and immediacy without allowing concrete media technologies to determine that history.
In the second version of this essay, Benjamin describes the loss of aura with a dialectical evenhandedness — it arrives with political potentials and pitfalls. Under the conditions of contemporary capitalism, however, there reemerges a “uniqueness” reminiscent of Benjamin’s aura, but for which this same evenhandedness may not be adequate. Fredric Jameson groups this contemporary fetish of “uniqueness” with an overcoming of time by space to form his notion of “the aesthetics of singularity.” The “installation” is paradigmatic of this aesthetic: it emphasizes space, elevates certain aesthetic categories (“the art object”), is constituted via an act of curation, and performs a “de-differentiation of the various arts and media” (“The Aesthetics of Singularity” 107-8). Though emphasizing their own uniqueness, singularities carry with them the same industrial logic of the commodity that overcame the aura: “Art today is generated by a single bright idea which, combining form and content, can be repeated ad infinitum …” (112).
While Benjamin’s essay helps ground the following discussion of immediacy as an effect that only becomes legible against the background of industrialized media cultures, Jameson points to the problem of theorizing the seemingly auratic qualities that contemporary commodification is reconverting into fetishism. I will argue that certain aspects of the contemporary novel, particularly its peculiar version of realism, provide a way of addressing this problem as a problem of immediacy in the midst of transformations in production on a scale larger even than those experienced by Benjamin. In altering the contemporary meaning of the term immediacy, novels like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and Rachel Cusk’s Transit will also carry with them notions about how the contemporary novel can operate within a media environment that seeks to provide immediacy but breeds hypermediacy.
There are, of course, other models for understanding this logic to which the contemporary novel will provide a contrast. Writing as the object now known as “new media” was just beginning to come into view, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin attempt to renovate Benjamin’s understanding of reproducibility, primarily through the complex and multi-valent concept of “remediation.” Remediation shows that the history of (communicative) media is not that of an ever-more-faithful reproduction of a preexisting reality, but rather a process of a given medium interacting with others in a series of oppositions without wholly positive terms. What is mediated, in other words, is always other media. This remediatory logic rests on an interplay of “immediacy” and “hypermediacy,” an effacement of the medium which defines itself in opposition to its conspicuous presence elsewhere. A new medium takes on a status “closer to reality” in comparison to another. After film, for example, photography only captures still images. A novel such as Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto exemplifies this logic in the novel form, which Bakhtin identified as a form capable of integrating other forms. Within a single book Pajak plays with photography, drawing, realist narrative, biography, manifesto, and memoir, each of these media or genres having its own relation to and method for achieving a certain immediacy — the direct experience of the “I” in autobiography or the “eye” of the drawings being one relationship whose incommensurability Pajak foregrounds. The unfaithfully reproduced experience of the eye — at times dissolving into abstraction (30) or diverting to historical scenes for which Pajak was not present (46)— at other times pretends to a mimetic immediacy which the words even more obliquely approximate, though often providing logical precision on the level of the sentence.
The introduction of genre into this problem points out that it is not only a medial process in the material sense. In terms of genres themselves, such an interplay is at work in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, in which genre and medium enter into a dynamic relationship. Taking up the zombie apocalypse genre, Zone One finds itself in the position of an older medium remediating a newer, more “popular” one. His appropriation of the zombie genre in this sense must address its history, from the world of independent filmmaking to its lucrative reproduction in Hollywood. Zone One constantly identifies discrepancies between its own zombie apocalypse — that experienced by “average” protagonist Mark Spitz — and those portrayed on screen. Though having grown up with the lone survivor fantasies that accompany the apocalyptic imagination, Mark Spitz was quickly disabused of such ideas: “Now he was grown up and the plague had granted him his wish and rendered it a silly grotesque” (244). Likewise, though in the “cinema of the end times, the roads feeding the evacuated city are often clear,” Mark Spitz experiences traffic jams and other minor inconveniences (168). What this distancing from cinematic portrayals produces is the divergence between a “real” zombie apocalypse (or a literary one) and those of Hollywood. Zone One thus evinces a need to “realize” the zombie apocalypse, whether due to the proximity of various impending socioeconomic and environmental catastrophes or due to a cultural imperative to present the “real” of any given content. In either case the genre becomes a pretense for effacing its own generic conventions.
In both Uncertain Manifesto and Zone One, the relationship among different formal modes of mediation — be they genres, styles, or media themselves—involves a certain claim to representational veracity that is made by way of contrast with other forms. Such was the case with the model of literary history presented in Viktor Shklovsky’s early essay “Art as Device,” in which literary history becomes a series of negations undoing the attempts of earlier styles to establish themselves as natural — all in order to usher in a new method for achieving immediacy, with the sun becoming sunny once again, as he famously wrote (1-14). From the position of a burgeoning high modernism in the early Soviet Union, the dereifying movement of estrangement (ostranenia) may have appeared plausible as the motor of cultural change, but the oppositions of contemporary realism do not follow from a progression uncompromised by factors external to the history of literary devices. While the emergence of this contemporary realism will merit analysis in its own right, such analysis will hinge on an updated conception of immediacy. As for their own theories about immediacy, Bolter and Grusin open their book with an example that illustrates the problems that specifically attend the concept of immediacy in a contemporary world that they do not hesitate to consider hypermediated. They draw this example from the film Strange Days (1995), set in a future whose technological advancements have produced a medium — “the wire” — which achieves what Bolter and Grusin deem the ultimate purpose of mediation: “to transfer sense experiences from one person to another” (3). The paradoxical effect of this invention, however, is that it renders all other media obsolete, creating a new “immediate” standard of experience only by means of an extremely complicated form of hypermediation. But such an advanced medium ultimately operates by a logic no different from any other, at least within their communicative definition of media. As Alexander Galloway puts it: “any mediating technology is obliged to erase itself to the highest degree possible in the name of unfettered communication, but in so doing it proves its own virtuosic presence as technology, thereby undoing the original erasure” (62).
A parallel tension has been observable in the cultural logics of the “age of technological reproducibility,” not least of all because reproducibility entails the possibility of a mass culture/avant garde opposition. Galloway provides several pairs of terms for this opposition — including text/paratext, Aristotle/Brecht, Hitchcock/Godard, image/frame —the latter of each representing a “political modernism” that extends across much of the twentieth century (41). As in the logic of remediation, the modernist term can only operate by undoing some form that has achieved a certain “naturalness,” not unlike Shklovsky’s model of ostranenie. Whether or not it perpetuates “an ideology of the new,” the postmodern novel could still be identified with such tropes of estrangement, drawing attention to its own inherited representational structures (from Barthelme to Cortázar). Certain contemporary novels can also be said to have inherited this trope. Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame, for example, insists on the mediatory moments of narrative and language, technological communication, and identification, in a sort of spiraling hypermediation that foregoes any “immediate” foothold. In the novel’s final pages, for example, as his girlfriend Elizabeth discovers to her dread that her own narrative is being written as one of his novels, the writer Leo makes explicit the meaning of the novel’s diegetic infractions: “‘We’re always in stories. ... You never know where one ends and another begins! In truth they all flow into one another. It’s only in books that they’re clearly divided’” (173). Fame thus performs this narrative dedifferentiation in the one place Leo considers still narratively organized or “divided.”
Do other contemporary novels produce immediacy without resorting to these strategies of immediacy-hypermediacy? Ultimately, by focusing on their implicit understandings of immediacy, it will be clear that the dynamics of political modernism described above and ushered in most completely as a response to the mass culture of reproducibility, no longer so strictly define the formal positions these novels can take. Insofar as it can be read as a meditation on the contemporary desire for immediacy, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder points toward possible ways of approaching this question. McCarthy’s damaged narrator, having been struck by a piece of equipment that fell from the sky, uses a large sum of money received in a legal settlement to reconstruct the chance encounters and fragmented memories that return to him “like a film run in instalments” (23). Several of Benjamin’s examples of aura seem like they would serve almost as well as moments of sensory awareness the narrator wants to recreate: “To follow with the eye ... a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch” (105). The difference, of course, is that the moment the narrator wants to capture is not one of direct experience of nature, but rather of the dense hypermediation of urban life itself. Even the repetitions the narrator forces his actors to perform take on a ritualistic importance akin to the one Benjamin ascribed to the aura and to which he opposed the political basis of mass media (105, 106). If this is the case, however, it is most likely due to the narrator’s insistence that, in order to maintain something of their aura, his reenactments not be filmed, or committed to technological reproducibility — despite resembling in every way the construction of film scenes (even filing for a film-set permit at one point). Instead, the reproducibility inheres in the experience itself — the endless repetitions to which he submits the actors.
At any rate, the narrator’s desire for immediacy follows a circuitous route, and occasions a reflection on what instigates that desire. In his contemporary culture industry, Benjamin points out a contradictory logic, in which “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things” is equaled only by a “concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness [Überwindung des Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit] by assimilating it as a reproduction” (105, emphasis in original). Perhaps there is no better description of the narrator’s own desire: simultaneously to “get closer” to things and to assimilate them as reproductions. Conflicting desires and their relation to regimes of mediation, however, are here intimately correlated with the same imperatives that reign in the realm of production. Bernard Stiegler provides a concise conceptual update to the productive conditions to which Benjamin tied his cultural analyses with his notion of hyperindustrialism, which corrects mistaken characterizations of post-fordism as marking a “post-industrial” era. Stiegler’s hyperindustrialism denotes a set of historical homologies in the late twentieth century that were an effect, on the contrary, of intensifying production and its relocation to the Global South. Beginning with the deindustrializing nations, this included the shift from analog to digital technologies that, as Dennis Broe writes, “allowed a kind of hyper-reproducibility and corresponded to the moment of the triumph of neoliberalism, with its attendant unfettered and largely unregulated globalization of capital” (19). Above all, hyperindustrialism names capital’s imperative to “industrialize all things,” including consumption itself.
Hyperindustrialism, hyper-reproducibility, hypermediation. Are these contemporary phenomena merely insensifications of those preceding them, or, as in Benjamin’s assessment, has a change in quantity resulted in yet another new quality? Relating these processes of acceleration to their opposed forms of immediacy, Bolter and Grusin argue that — as expressed by the “wire” of Strange Days — contemporary “culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation” (5). This would seem to suggest that contemporary culture is in fact no different from the one Benjamin registered as inciting a desire both to “get closer” to things and to “assimilate” them as reproductions. In Remainder, however, culture seems to “want” something slightly different, and can therefore offer a seemingly small revision whose larger implications will be traced in conclusion. The narrator’s pursuit of supposedly unmediated experience leads him to construct progressively more complicated means for remediating those memories. In order to go about recreating these moments, the narrator goes to great lengths, employs a number of people, and spends large sums of money. With his assistant, Naz, the sets, the consultants and actors, the trappings of the auratic moment are reassembled, but at the cost of destroying what made it auratic in the first place. Paradoxically, it is only by a proliferating mediatory apparatus that anything resembling the immediacy of experience can be achieved, but in fact it is only when this apparatus breaks down (the fold in the carpet, or more disastrously in the novel’s conclusion, the reemergence of the performance’s underlying reality) that it comes anywhere close to achieving it. Remainder’s plot, having begun in media res, never recovers the origins from which it drives forward and which can only with the foregoing reflection be recognized as a desire for something like immediacy. More significantly, however, it adds the caveat that hypermediacy itself is a product of this same desire. In fact, the repetition of the events as “reenactments” takes on a logic reminiscent not of desire but of what Freud termed the “drive” (Trieb), whereby the inability to fulfil one’s desire is transformed into a form of pleasure in its own right. To translate this back into the logic of media: what is observed in Remainder is not the enjoyment of “the opacity of media themselves,” per Bolter and Grusin, but the transformation of their non-opacity into something enjoyable (22).
Though it was suggested above that Remainder’s reenactments follow a logic of the aura, it is again Jameson’s “singularity” that seems to be the more apt description. Jameson in fact names the reenactments of Remainder as exemplary of such a logic in which “the postmodern event or non-event comment[s] on the narrative events of another, modernist era,” leaving only “a pure present without a past or a future” (“Aesthetics of Singularity” 112-13). Singularities being unified form-contents, Remainder’s form participates in the construction of such a non-event. Unlike Fame, it does not reflect upon its own condition as narrative. If there is a sense of reflexivity to the novel, it remains implicit within a narrative style that foregoes such formalization. Instead, its realism does not rely so heavily on remediation in order to construct a sense of immediacy.
Again, unlike Fame, Remainder does not foreground its various modes of mediation through diegetic puzzles. But the narrator does, like the characters of Fame, find himself wrapped up in schemes, the workings of which he cannot access. From the beginning of the novel, the narrator admits that “about the accident itself [he] can say very little,” except that it “involved something falling from the sky” (3). The memories that come back to him are bodily instantiated in “tingling feelings” that come to him while “standing there, passive, with [his] palms turned outwards, feeling intense and serene” (9). This description places the narrator in the position of the medium in the word’s original sense, an individual serving as a conduit for the supernatural or unexplainable. In the case of the accident, its legal aftermath, his memories, and his desire to recreate them — in all these cases the event arrives with no explanation, and the narrator is at the whim of forces that seem external. This phenomenon is recognizable from, among other places in his work, Marx’s description of money economies in his notes on James Mill. Alienation is there described as the reversal by which what once mediated between social agents takes on a life of its own, and social agents begin to mediate on behalf of it: “Hence man becomes the poorer as man [sic], i.e., separated from this mediator, the richer this mediator becomes” (“Notes on James Mill”). The narrator of Remainder is already the mediator of a reality to which he does not have access, prior even to that reality’s instantiation through money.
A similar reflection on the narrator as a “medium” is noticeable in the unified form-content of Rachel Cusk’s Transit. The narrator-author, named once by another character as Fey, acts as a medium (again in the old sense of the term) for others’ stories. Her querulous neighbors, the Polish contractor renovating her home, her distant cousin, and others provide the content that she filters without comment. Like the medium-narrator of Remainder, Fey’s role is more like that of a recording camera, or better still, an editor, leaving the meaning of the narrative to be sought in their curation, rather than in a presented interiority or even a style, which, though present, is self-effacing. Like in the logic of remediation, by moving toward an effacement of the narrator as such in order to “immediately” convey the workings of the outer world, Cusk paradoxically makes all the clearer the necessity that this world pass through the narrator, that it be filtered through some such point of view.
In both Transit and Remainder the narrator’s status as medium is contingent on the immediacy such a medium is supposed to provide. Both novels employ the narrator as a medium in two senses: first, in the old sense of the term, as individuals caught in an immanent scheme which appears to be transcendently arranged; second, in an effort to provide an immediacy typically associated with various versions of realism. To describe this contemporary realism of which the narratorial logic of Remainder and Transit is exemplary, however, is not a formal task divorceable from the foregoing account of changes in the mode and relations of production, realisms themselves being, among other things, various attempts at grasping the novel social conditions such transformations bring about. It should already be clear that what was missing from the foregoing discussion of “updating” Benjamin today is, of course, digitization — the capitalist technological innovation responsible for many of the most profound changes that beget any socioeconomic periodization of “the contemporary” (post-1973, post-1990, even post-2008). Under these technological conditions the very category of reproducibility seems at once extended (“hyper-reproducibility”) and outmoded. Like the reenactments of Remainder, though infinitely “reproducible,” today’s “work of art” instead seems to approach the “total” art of the singular installation, of an expansive digital simulation, or of the immersive experience — that is to say, of a false immediacy whose technological milieu is unique to the late capitalism of the twenty-first century.
In his suggestion at the beginning of New Philosophy for New Media that something like Benjamin’s aura could be said to have reemerged in such a technological milieu, Mark Hansen brings about another basis on which to revise the aura. Against McLuhanites like Bolter and Grusin, Hansen argues for an understanding of the body’s persistence in the digital framing of a world characterized by “the pure flow of data unencumbered by any need to differentiate into concrete media types, or in other words, to adapt itself to the constraints of human perceptual ratios” (3). This leads him to suggest that “[one] might even characterize this properly creative role accorded the body as the source for a new, more or less ubiquitous form of aura: the aura that belongs indelibly to this singular actualization of data in embodied experience” (4). In terms of cultural politics, this “singular actualization,” which is simultaneously “more or less ubiquitous,” as much propels us forward to “singularities” as it does to return us to foregoing theories of the all-encompassing spectacle (Debord) or the becoming-simulation of consumer society (Baudrillard), each of which is an attempt to name the proliferation of images (what Debord called the highest form of commodity reification) that has become at once personalized and “ubiquitous.” Anxieties about the perfection of such techniques through digital technology are only more prevalent today than they were in the nineties of The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Strange Days. But given the inadequacy of any of these concepts for grasping the totalizing and immersive character of this new commodified immediacy, Jameson suggests that a different concept from Benjamin’s reproducibility essay sustains its relevance in an age of techno-economical integration and the overcoming of reproducibility itself: “aestheticization.”
Opposed to politicization, aestheticization was for Benjamin allied with fascism. As Jameson puts it, aestheticization names the state in which “reality is a pre-prepared illusion from the outset,” “transform[ing] our consumption of information itself,” leading today to the “reappearance of tribalisms that have a family likeness to the traditional fascisms” (The Benjamin Files 155-56). Though aura has no opposite (187), Jameson points out that it does have its positive and negative faces, and aestheticization stretches to include the reversal “in which aura is part and parcel of that immense cultural swindle that compensates the commodified poverty of industrial ‘ever-sameness’” (189). Aestheticization thus names another false immediacy: the false immediacy of fascist politics. As in Remainder, the dialectical irony of such immediacies is that they can only be brought about by such an advanced form of mediation that, if we are as hopeful as Galloway, “proves its own virtuosic presence as technology thereby undoing the original erasure” (62).
Ultimately the realism peculiar to these novels seems to be wrapped up in a preoccupation with the immediacy that the hyperindustrial world is at pains to produce. It morphs their formal categories (genre in Zone One and Uncertain Manifesto, the narrator in Transit and Remainder), and informs the anxieties of their content. Immediacy hence emerges from them as a term adequate to the technological conditions of contemporary capitalism and that cuts across various other models (aura, remediation, singularity, aestheticization) to allow us to conceive of a unity across such historical difference. But these novels just as presciently warn that if “immediacy” is to be of any use today, its meaning must be diligently safeguarded against solidifying into its own form of false immediacy.
When Robinson Crusoe asserts the island to be “a whole country” that exists in a relationship of “mere property” to his sovereign self, he establishes a logic of the novel that is concerned with the formation of the individual as a category of being in relation to personal and material property (Defoe 247). As the novel’s protagonist protects their own property against the antagonistic forces that constantly threaten to violate the boundaries of ownership, what is at stake is the very sanctity of the notion of the individual as a self-containing category. If this logic undergirds a traditional understanding of the novel, what, then, is at stake in contemporary novels that implicate the violation of personal and material property as a primary concern?
The way to approach this question lies in Crusoe’s assertion of property over not only the territory of the island, but also the bodies of the “subjects” inhabiting it (247). In assuming sovereign property relations with other bodies, Crusoe crosses into the field of biopolitics and the concept of immunity — particularly what allows the individual to be protected from subsumption into a larger, sovereign governing body. In other words, it becomes a point of interest to view the novel as a site of contestation over the formation (and proprietary violation) of bodies that own and are owned. The simplest way to approach a definition of immunity for the novel is to recognize Roberto Esposito’s operative definition of “biopolitics” as the backdrop to which this term can be understood. Esposito describes the juncture between bios and nomos as two dialectically dependent terms key to the preservation of life: “politics is nothing other than the possibility or the instrument for keeping life alive” (24). Thus, in defining the Latin word immunitas as the “inverse logic of communitas,” Esposito directs our attention to the connective munus, in Latin the “contract or duty” or as Esposito writes, “an obligation of reciprocal gift-giving” that contractually binds an individual to the community they exist within (27-28). Within a scope of legality, Esposito suggests, immunity is an exemption from this collectively established munus that grants an individual a state of “‘nonbeing’ or the ‘not-having’ anything in common,” with the community at large.
To reach a definition of immunity bound inversely to community, Esposito contextualizes the term in two modes of thought that place the formation of the individual as an act of separation and containment. The first context takes the spatialization of an immunity/community binary as the resulting logic of property ownership as a response to the alienation of personal liberty. Of the many thinkers that Esposito cites, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes form the two pillars upon which this reading is built. We may recognize the language of a contract that binds an individual to a community in the interest of preserving life as Hobbes’s definition of “sovereignty” as “involv[ing] both the renunciation or transfer of right and the authorization of the sovereign power,” (Stanford Encyclopedia, Hobbes). According to Esposito this contractual renunciation “jeopardizes individual identity,” a notion which echoes Locke’s conceptualization of property as a response to the authoritarian crisis of subjectivity. In his Second Treatise of Government, section 27, Locke introduces the labor theory of property in which “every man has a property in his own person ... the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” In other words, the cultivation of space formed on the logic of property ownership becomes an act of self-preservation from the subjective threat of external authority. Thus, if Hobbesian sovereign authority supposes the social contract as a munus that protects its inhabitants from the threat of the outside, the Lockean conception of private property ownership provides a model of immunity predicated on physical separation and self-containment as the grounds for which a subjective individual can defend himself from that very munus.
For this glossary, interests in self-containment and the formation of subjectivity are concepts that are provocatively rooted in the study of novels. Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a more explicit connection between the self-contained subject and the novel in The Origin of Table Manners, where he states that “the hero of the novel is the novel itself.” This connection between the formation of the self and the formation of the novel is subsequently clarified through the overarching desire for containment via structure: “[the novel] tells its own story, saying not only that it was born of the exhaustion of myth, but also that it is nothing more than an exhausting pursuit of structure, always lagging behind an evolutionary process that it keeps the closest watch on” (131). In other words, for Lévi-Strauss, the novel’s formation of the protagonist is symbolic of the larger process where the novel seeks to defines itself through the drawing of structural boundaries. This exhaustive pursuit is ultimately one of separation and containment.
Lévi-Strauss’s implication of “an evolutionary process”, which the structural pursuit of the novel lags behind, offers a segue to Esposito’s pathological reading of immunity/community which further extends the us-them logic. The connotation of disease control and immunology offers Esposito an opportunity to explain his own definition of immunity: “the negative of immunitas doesn’t only disappear, but constitutes simultaneously its object and motor” (28). Read through the lens of vaccination, Esposito notes that in order to acquire immunity from a disease, “the political body functions similarly; introducing within it a fragment of the same pathogen that it wants to protect itself from, by blocking and contradicting natural development” (24). In this formulation, we see once again the interactive dialectic: the vaccinated community’s “introjec[tion of] the negative modality of its opposite,” can only be made sensible within the context of another self-containment or foreclosure of possibility in the “blocking and contradicting natural development” (28). Once again, the preservation of life and the resulting formation of the self is predicated on a fundamentally binary logic of us-them that, for Esposito, operates within dualistic dichotomies of sick versus healthy, nation versus world, and property-owner versus authoritarian government.
With an understanding of how immunity is defined by Esposito, it serves me now to discuss Esposito’s biopolitics in the context of the global contemporary novel: what is immunity doing in the novel and, perhaps, what is the novel doing to the concept of immunity itself? The best way to approach this question, I believe, is through the way Esposito’s immunity describes self-formation as distinctly an act of separation or containment from a larger, dependent “other.” Two of the novels we have read for class this semester take on the question of self-formation most directly: the post-apocalyptic Zone One by Colson Whitehead which offers the most-fitting setting of a global, apocalyptic pandemic and Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes which takes up the question of how individuals form themselves in the connected age of the internet network. Following Esposito’s formulation of the way in which community instantiates a negative modality of immunity, both Zone One and Fame, I argue, will encourage us to see how novels contest this formulation as insufficient for a contemporary, global setting.
In Zone One, we will pay particular attention to Esposito’s vaccination logic, implicating a “blocking and contradicting [of] natural development,” as the diagnosable symptom for which a third category infiltrates the us-them binary: that of the “naturally developed” immune who have crossed over into sick and returned. This reading will help to unravel and unfold the logic of the global novel that suggests gentrification — or the exclusive acquisition of property — does not help in achieving immunity within the context of a survival game, but rather forecloses the only chances of survival. Turning then to Kehlmann’s Fame, self-formation as a distinct negation of community takes the form of a different contagion: fame. Re-instantiating the us-them binary as famous-anonymous rather than sick-healthy, Fame takes up the question of the formation of individuals as celebrities. The novel, in this case, presents the reader with a theoretical “update” in which a model of self-formation by fame operates by the immunitary logic of self-containment, fails terribly, and is replaced with a network-based model.
Model 1: Zone One by Colson Whitehead
No one used the word “cure” anymore. The plague so transformed the human body that no one still believed they could be restored. Sure, rumors persisted that a team of Swiss scientists were holed up in the Alps working on processes to reverse the effects, but most survivors had seen enough skels to know the verdict of the plague could not be overturned. No. The only thing to do with a lassoed skel was to put it down. (82)
The most remarkable detail of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is the fact that the government overseeing operations in a post-apocalyptic America has given up on developing a vaccination for the zombifying virus. This foreclosure of this horizon, the denial of the possibility for inoculation, forces the characters of the novel into a strict us-them binary between uninfected and infected. According to Esposito, “immunization is a negative [form] of the protection of life. It saves, insures, and preserves the organism, either individual or collective, but it doesn’t do so directly or immediately; on the contrary, it subjects the organism to a condition that simultaneously negates or reduces its power to expand” (24). Following the logic of vaccination, if inoculation represents each member of an immunized community carrying within them a portion of the infection, the abandoning of research suggests only two modalities of existence: the “single Us now, reviling a single Them” (291).
Following Esposito's transfer of the logic of vaccination from the physical body to the “political” body, then, we see how gentrification and property acquisition becomes the only logic through which immunity from the plague can be established. The novel displaces the physical presence of sovereign authority to an aggregate headquarters of creative professionals placed in the city of Buffalo, thus estranging intellectual production from material production. For the setting of the novel in Manhattan, however, the work of survival, of obtaining immunity from the zombifying plague, operates through the logic of containment and perpetual quarantine. Tracking the perspective of Mark Spitz and the Omega Unit sweeper team, humanity’s last hope hinges upon clearing out the infected inhabitants of residential property and refurbishing them for humanity’s use. The future of the people is predicated on the gentrification of space to accommodate a growing population that perpetuates an eternal segregation from the “others” that have been displaced. Although there is no explicit reference to gentrification, we see the implication of the practice through the character of Ms. Macy. Flying in from Buffalo on a helicopter, Ms. Macy arrives in Zone One to assess the progress on development, essentially embodying the role of a bourgeois city-planner or designer. Thus, the displaced authority in Buffalo which offers a contractual protection in exchange for individual subjectivity returns us to the Hobbesian model of sovereignty. Life is preserved through the contractual logic that sacrifices subjectivity in exchange for protection within the walls of Zone One.
We may notice that within this formulation of immunity by space acquisition that the formation of the self-contained individual vis-a-vis Locke is compromised: the communal living stipulations prevent the translation of labor into property ownership and thus immunity from sovereign authority. It can be argued that the novel relies on this seeming impossibility of forming the subject to place pressure on the rigidity of the uninfected-infected binary that presupposes the conditions of immunity. Returning to Esposito’s observation that part of the vaccination logic is the “blocking and contradicting natural development” and the subjection of the “organism to a condition that simultaneously negates or reduces its power to expand,” an inversion of the model begs the question: what is the natural development being denied?
The suggestion of a natural immunity turns us to the search for antibodies in the development of a vaccine. The novel states that “in the early days, the government required a stock of the recently infected and the thoroughly turned for experiments, to search for a cure, cook up a vaccine” (82). This effort to analyze the infected is one that falls short, particularly due to the degradation of the body in those infected, the irreversible “verdict.” In only analyzing the infected that have become skels, however, the possibility remains of the antibody-carrier: the individual who progresses from healthy to unhealthy and returns to healthy, thus becoming the individual carrier of blood with antigens that can dismantle the disease: a self-contained immunity.
Indeed, returning to the sweeper teams and particularly Mark Spitz, we see that Zone One offers a consideration of a third category that disrupts the immunitary binary is not merely a possibility, but an insurgent presence. In the configuration of immunity as an act of containment, the sweeper teams are the most consistent violators of this model: they traverse from the spaces of healthy to the spaces of the sick, straddling the lines of immunity and community. Mark Spitz’s arrival at Fort Wonton is described as “a deep immersion into a reanimated system,” whereas his journeys into the yet-to-be gentrified city are an equally deep immersion into the system of the reanimated (116). There also exists a psychological connection between the members of the sweeper team and undead that implicates an interstitiality unbegetting of the immunitary binary. Each sweeper is said to have a unique “appraisal of the dead,” and no example is more pertinent than Mark Spitz’s encounter with the Marge in the opening sequence of the novel in which the narrator remarks that Mark “recognized something in these monsters” (21). Even further than psychologically, however, it is suggested that the time Mark Spitz spends outside of the protective bubble of Zone One has permanently altered his body:
Certainly when the machine fired, it generated a localized atmosphere. But the ash did not shroud the metropolis, it did not taint the air in any sickening measure ... But for Mark Spitz it was everywhere. In every raindrop on his skin and the pavement, sullying every edifice and muting the blue sky: the dust of the dead. It was in his lungs, becoming assimilated into his body, and he despised it. (239)
The assimilation of the “dust of the dead” into the body of the sweeper team members presents a paradox that undoes the logic of spatial acquisition sanctioned by the government. In other words, the possibility of a natural immunity is foreclosed not by circumstance, but by the artificial intervention of the sovereign authority through the abandoning of vaccination research.
What implication does this detail have, then, for the global contemporary novel? The key lies in returning to the question of subjective formation in the novel and a performed critique of ownership as the means to this formation in the context of a survival game. Returning to Ms. Macy and the rebranding efforts of the government, Zone One works particularly to dissolve the notion of self-formation by property ownership in a setting where the objective is to survive. The images of quarantined containment are often deflated in Zone One, evidenced through Mims’s memory of living in a community located in a mini-mansion. Although “the dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure … return[ing] us to nature and wholesome communal living,” the sectioning off of space between the infected and the uninfected becomes the marker by which communities have denied themselves the only true chance of surviving: obtaining natural immunity from the infection (135). We may consider then the notion that self-formation by containment becomes a logic undone in the context of a global pandemic in which the only means of survival is the sharing of antibodies that requires a portion of the infection to be within every individual. In showing the foreclosure of any visions of herd immunity, Zone One questions the global novel’s ability to formulate individuals through an exclusionary paradigm of immunity in a survival context where the avaricious logics of space acquisition fall away. In other words, through proposing the survival game in which the third category penetrates the us-them binary proposed by a model of immunity predicated on separation from an “other,” Zone One questions the global novel’s ability to form individuals through capitalist logics of property ownership and containment.
Model 2: Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes by Daniel Kehlmann
“You can summon the whole household. Maybe you’ll even get Ralf Tanner to come outside himself. But what would you have gained? Ridicule, mockery, an extremely unpleasant encounter with the police, and, if you keep this up, a charge of harassment. You’re dealing with a star, and that means zero tolerance. He has to protect himself.” (76)
Bringing Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Fame into the conversation requires a revision of the immunitary binary that I have employed up until this point. In noting Kehlmann’s awareness and subsequent inversion of the immunity paradigm in the novel, we see the immunity and community distinction taken up with the social contagion of fame. Thus, instead of proposing a binary of infected-uninfected or sick-healthy, Kehlmann’s novel operates within a model of famous-anonymous. Moving the conversation from the contagion of a zombie plague to the contagion of fame allows us to implicate the global contemporary novel’s relationship to new models of interconnectivity that place pressure yet again on the possibility of a Lockean view of the self-contained individual.
The connection of fame to the logic of self-formation by containment is made most explicit by Ralf Tanner’s mansion in the episode titled “The Way Out.” When the real Ralf Tanner attempts to re-enter his home, he is met by Ludwig who immediately denies him access to the estate on the presumption that he is an impostor Ralf Tanner (73-75). At this moment, private property becomes the separating line between the famous individual and the anonymous masses. The need to self-contain is justified through the presence of an overwhelming number of Ralf Tanner impostors who symbolize Locke’s view on the alienation of individual subjectivity. The language that Ludwig utilizes is even a familiar rationalization of self-containing exclusion — Ralf Tanner’s “star” status dictates that he must “protect himself.” Instead of the government being the authority to which the individual must immunize themself, however, the novel proposes the growing presence of the Internet: a community who through the aggregation of information gives the means for another individual to impersonate Ralf Tanner and steal away the fame that affords him subjectivity as an individual. Therefore, the ownership of property, a deed of rightful, ownership and the physical space which can be attributed to Ralf Tanner, become the immunitary measures by which Ralf Tanner can be formed as a self-contained individual.
Yet, from this scene, we realize that something has failed within this model of self-exclusionary formation. The real Ralf Tanner is on the outside of the only supposed space that allows him the exclusionary means to define himself, while an imposter and successfully infiltrated the estate. By Ludwig’s own standards, the estate has failed to serve its immunitary purpose of protecting Ralf Tanner, the famous star, from the threat of the anonymous masses that might absolve him of his fame. To understand this failure, we may take a short detour to another episode, “The East,” which shows Fame’s deflation of the immunity paradigm.
“The East” follows the character of Maria Rubenstein, a novelist who takes an offer to replace the spot of Leo Richter in a literary tour destined to pass through Central Asia. The episode takes up the consideration of fame in an international, translingual context. The change of setting to Central Asia comes with the dissolution of name brand value for Maria Rubenstein. This is evidenced through the moment in which Maria arrives at the hotel that has been booked for her. Maria provides her name in the hopes of an acknowledgement of familiarity, an affirmation of fame: “Maria Rubenstein. I’m Maria Rubenstein” (81). This is returned with the shaking of the receptionist’s head who only provides her reprieve when Leo Richter, a name who happens to be on the list, is invoked (82). The mutual unintelligibility is summed up through “a disdainful gesture that obviously implied that nobody could understand what went on in foreigners’ heads” (82). It is ultimately this unintelligibility that prevents Maria Rubenstein from leaving the country after missing her flight. Unable to communicate with the locals, Maria is briefly imprisoned on a visa mishap and experiences a breakdown culminating in a frantic phone call to her husband in which she screams her own name in a desperate cry for recognition. The desire for recognition is cruelly mocked by Maria’s discovery of her own, most successful novel Dark Rain in a local bookstore (97).
The implications that Maria Rubenstein’s episode has on fame as a contagion comes through the moment in the bookstore. Whereas the marker of Maria’s fame exists within the Central Asian country, the immunity paradigm predicated on the exclusionary model of us-them falls apart in a transnational, translinguistic context. In other words, if the conditions for the formation of a self-contained celebrity implicates a separation from an anonymous public, “The East” demonstrates the failure of this effort across the semantic domains of nation and language. This is to say that Maria cannot formulate a self-contained individuality in a setting where the name brand that affords her a means of distinction from the public is culturally and linguistically untranslatable. To acquire fame through the negation of community requires a community that recognizes the immune individual’s candidacy for celebrity — be it the marker of being a famous actor or a renowned author. “The East” shows the result of an individual who fails to find the means of asserting immunity because the possibility of community implicates a recognition of commonality that is denied in Central Asia.
Returning to “The Way Out,” we may reflect briefly on the title of the episode as a clue to understanding its interaction with the concept of fame through the immunitary paradigm. After Ralf is rebuffed by Ludwig, we see the incursion of the us-them binary yet again:
He pushed his hands into his pockets and walked slowly down the street. He’d actually found the way out. He was free. He paused at a bus stop but then changed his mind and continued on his way, he had no desire at this moment to use public transport, it was always a strange experience when you looked like a star. People stared, children asked stupid questions, and used their cell phones to take photographs of you. (77)
By being replaced by an impostor in his own estate, Ralf Tanner moves from the sphere of the famous back to the sphere of the anonymous, a sensation which he labels as the acquisition of freedom. Through his reflection on public transportation, we see how fame as an immunitary paradigm of self-formation necessitates continual negations of community: Ralf must be stared at, be asked stupid questions, and take photos with strangers as a way to constantly affirm his immunity and distance from the anonymous masses. By being replaced by the Ralf Tanner impostor, however, the real Ralf can return to being anonymous, shedding the distinction and contagion of fame.
Focusing on the detail that Ralf achieves freedom from an impostor taking his place, however, we can see how Fame proposes a new means of self-formation divorced from spatial separation and containment. Ralf Tanner’s liberation from his own estate marks the escape of the individual being formed based on self-containment. The idea of finding the way out connotes the sense of entrapment implicated in the contagion of fame, not unlike the closed-off communities of Zone One that have foreclosed the possibility of survival. In the same way, the formation of self by spatial self-containment becomes like shackles to Ralf Tanner who exists in fame by being invisible and inaccessible to the public. The presence of the Internet in the episode, however, proposes the World Wide Web as the reason why Ralf Tanner’s invisibility to the public is an illusion. YouTube provides the outlet for others to carefully analyze Ralf Tanner’s behaviors and tendencies for the purpose of mimicry (70). This dissolution of Ralf Tanner into a series of dividual, repeatable behaviors and actions becomes the basis for his own escape from celebrity status.
The fact that Ralf is not contained but rather scrutinized and divided on the Internet not only rejects the model of self-formation by containment but also proposes a new model in its stead. The Internet not only turns Ralf Tanner into a dividual series of repeatable actions and behaviors, but it also expands the consideration of the individual from a single containable entity to an atomized network. On the website IMDB, Ralf notices a series of misinformations that locate him in places in the world that he has never been, such as China, doing activities for reasons that are conjectural and falsified (73-74). In this sense, not only does Fame deflate the formation of the celebrity by spatial containment, but it also suggests the impossibility of any containment of celebrity status in a world connected by the Internet network.
What implications does this imposition of the Internet have on the global contemporary novel? Returning to the question of the formation of individuals, Fame questions the idea of self-formation to constitutively be an act of containment and separation from an “other.” For Fame, the Internet becomes the backdrop by which separation from the “other” becomes impossible in the context of celebrity fame. In terms of globality, Maria Rubenstein’s story shows the older model of fame which cannot be translated across languages and distances, only for the outdated model to be updated in the context of Ralf Tanner. The Internet transcends borders of language and culture to bring fame to a global stage that cannot be contained. Thus, Fame shows us how the global contemporary novel, in its awareness of the Internet, formulates the individual as a succession of dividual, constituent details, and behaviors. Through this network model of self-formation, it is not by the immunitary separation from community that one achieves subjectivity, but by the unique cocktail of dividual details that constitutes the individual.
How does the contemporary global novel remake the subject of the novel for the present hypermediated world that its readership presumably inhabits? To sketch an answer for this question, I want to think alongside Fredric Jameson, who has famously claimed the death of the subject in his influential study Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989). The death of the subject is intimately bound up with what Jameson terms “the waning of affect,” which he identifies with feeling or emotion arising from an individual subject or monad. This description of the bourgeois individual is reminiscent of the Hegelian understanding of the subject with an emotional core, and the “waning of affect” thus attests to the “death” of a subject or psychic capacity shaped by an earlier economic mode (15-16). The mode of production associated with late capitalism brings about a “flattening” of the once-“round” characters that populated the novels of an earlier industrial era. In post-1945 novels, Jameson argues, characters report fluctuations of feeling that can no longer be identified as individuated emotions. Instead, Jameson borrows Lyotard’s term “intensities” to characterize the impersonal and ephemeral yet nonetheless subjective forces that coalesce and disperse groups of individuals today (49). Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), however, turns Postmodernism’s definition of affect on its head, situating it in opposition to monadic “emotion.” In this redefinition, Jameson conceives of affect as synonymous with the “bodily feelings” he had previously called intensities (30).
Affect theory’s critical emergence and Jameson’s subsequent redefinition finds its impetus in Gilles Deleuze’s updating of Spinoza. In his lecture on “Spinoza’s Concept of Affect,” Deleuze defines the force of affect by way of its difference from the idea of emotion: whereas an idea is a mode of thought that is representative in nature, an affect is “any mode of thought which doesn’t represent anything” (2). The non-representational character of affect makes it difficult to name, as language is inherently a representational tool. Deleuze goes on to explain, “affect is not reducible to an intellectual comparison of ideas but is constituted by the lived transition or lived passage from one degree of perfection to another” (3-4). In this, Deleuze sees affect as a process, an experiential fluctuation between states of being. The affective subject becomes someone or something else. Appropriately, Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism asks us to consider affect as what demarcates different moments in the history of the novel and connects those moments to periodic insurgencies of affect that require us to develop a more adequate theory of not only emotion but ultimately the human subject. If we consider today’s affective subjects as subjects-in-process rather than states of being, Jameson’s “waning of affect” certainly applies to the well-rounded protagonists of nineteenth-century realism. In relation to the flat protagonist that has emerged in recent fiction, however, the contemporary subject could be more accurately described as a waxing of affect.
To be clear, when I use the term subjectivity in reference to contemporary fictional characters, I do not mean the self-contained bourgeois individual, but an alteration of that concept informed by Jameson’s redefinition. It is important to note that Jameson’s work attributes formal changes in novels of the last three decades to undeniable transformations in the media ecologies that they inhabit. In suggesting the limits of his 1980s concept of the postmodern subject, it is only fair to point out our growing awareness of what it takes for a novel to succeed in increasingly globalized economic markets and social relations, as well as a radically different media landscape. Prescient as they are in this respect, it seems to me, neither Postmodernism (1989) nor Antinomies (2013) could account for the impact of the global dominance of the Internet, particularly social media platforms, on the very idea of subjectivity. To help qualify just how incredibly far-reaching this medial domination has evolved in the last decade, meditate on this: a 2020 report from the digital datahub We Are Social shows that more than 4.5 billion people are now using the Internet worldwide, and social media users have now passed the 3.8 billion mark. Nearly 60% of the world’s total population is online, and 85% of those users have social media profiles. This number is projected to go up by 9% in the next year but could very well go up much larger than projected due to society’s increased reliance on Internet socialization in light of coronavirus-related shutdowns. The emergence and dominance of social media has presented a rapid and expansive change that has transformed the postmodern subjectivity of the 1980s into something I wish to call ‘Internet subjectivity.’
One way to approach the Behemoth of subjectivity and the rise of the Internet profile is through Eva Illouz’s Emotional Capitalism (2005). Though not exactly current scholarship on social media, this text explores the Internet (dating) profile to consider the ways in which the Internet changes Jameson’s postmodern subject. Illouz writes, “At face value, the Internet enables a far more flexible, open-ended, and multiple self, thus marking the epitome of the postmodern self in its capacity to make the self playful, self-inventing, and even deceitful in its capacity to manipulate information regarding the self” (80). Nevertheless, she distinguishes the Internet’s ideal subjectivity as more “ontic” than the concept that prevailed in critical theory:
Whereas the postmodern self implies there is no core self, only a multiplicity of roles to be played, the self that is posited by the conjunction of psychology and Internet technology is “ontic” in the sense that it assumes there is a core self which is permanent and which can be captured through a multiplicity of representations (questionnaire, photo, emailing) and so on. The Internet revives with a vengeance the old Cartesian dualism between mind and body, with the only real locus for thought and identity being in the mind. To have an Internet self is to have a Cartesian cogito, and to be involved in the world by looking at it from within the walls of one’s consciousness. (80-81)
Illouz sees the Internet as a decidedly psychological, self-reflexive technology. The Internet assumes that there is a kind of individual self that exists in the word, evident in the Internet profile’s reliance on labeling. The Internet profile allows its user to create a stable self-narrative (or unstable, if they choose) that has some immaterial permanence. Illouz’s insight that the Internet revives the Cartesian dualism of mind and body is perhaps most valuable in light of what it can tell us about the transformations, or ‘death’ of a certain kind of emotional subject in postmodern novels. Rather than the intensities of feeling that Jameson understands as operating through the body, Illouz finds that, for its users, the Internet recuperates a fantasy of the mind’s self-determination, as “the only real locus for thought and identity [on the Internet profile is] in the mind.” Rather than recuperate a Romantic individuality or monadic subject per se, the Internet self might be said to hallucinate something like the “I” of Romantic lyric, a disembodied Cartesian subject. I draw this comparison very loosely, for unlike the Romantic poet who sees the lyric as embodying his feelings in a meaningful and immediate way, social media makes its users hyperaware of the fact that Internet profiles are carefully curated and constructed — take the normalization and indeed desirability of distorting filters on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat as a case in point (though by Internet logic, this distortion could be more properly understood as enhancement). However conscientiously the user may enhance their own profile, once it’s online it’s ultimately the algorithms that market these profiles that determines their fate.
In the ready embracement of the self as playful and ironic construction, Internet subjectivity does not deny postmodern subjectivity, but rather takes it to its logical extreme: the Internet self is the afterlife of the dead, rounded subjects of realism. The social media profile offers a medium by which a user can create curate an emotional and cognitive core without there being a “there there.” In this way, the social media profile operates on the logic of what Baudrillard calls ‘the hyperreal,’ a representation without an original sign. The social media profile ushers a new conception of subjectivity based in a sense of self with a capacious if not dubious relationship to realism, and one that is in a constant state of becoming (for when is the social media profile ever ‘finished?’).
Few of these novels foreground the internet as integral to the setting of human action but it nevertheless shapes characters’ social relations and sense of self, and thus the social interaction that constitutes the plot. To demonstrate the formal consequences of the contemporary novel’s importation of Internet subjectivity, I will shift to a textual analysis of Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes (2010) and Rachel Cusk’s Transit (2016). For at their core, both these novels represent and probe the ways in which technology mediates human subjectivity in the tradition of realism and aim to represent how the novelistic technology (as Clifford Siskin has called it) consolidates the formation of a kind of socially networked consciousness.
Fame’s episodic form makes apparent the social network it engineers. For instance, the passing reference of the “stupid books” by Miguel Auristos Blanco that Ebling’s wife reads in “Voices,” is later given context when Miguel Auristos Blanco appears in his own deadly serious story “Replying to the Abbess,” and is once again iterated in “A Contribution to the Debate,” when the internet user moll-wit parodies his voice and philosophy: “become one with things, one with becoming one, one with your oneness with them” (5, 117). These ephemeral moments of superficial interconnection behave much like the tag feature on social media platforms, and this tagging is the primary method that Kehlmann uses to connect otherwise alienated characters together. Since the novel’s stories only gain traction by means of their engineered connection, the entire novel itself seems to be operating on the logic of a social network. The novel’s episodic, networked structure effectively flattens the moral plane of its many characters, refusing to privilege any one character or point of view over another. As a result, the novel embraces multiplicity and connectivity for its own sake, sketching character by character, network by network with no particular ideological telos. Rather, the success of Fame’s plot hinges on the development of a social network in of itself: it is this making of a social network that the novel aspires to.
In terms of content, each of Fame’s episodes underscores the novel’s preoccupation with the kind of hyperreality afforded by the unbounded, non-mimetic representation of the self (the kind of self-enabled by internet profiles). Khelmann’s insistence that Fame is not a collection of short stories but is actually A Novel in Nine Episodes insists that each chapter be interpreted as an episodic repetition that contributes to some novelistic whole, but if one latches on to the medial affordance of the term ‘episodes’ in light of its seriality, the novel’s chapters have to be read as episodes that only gain meaning as they establish a pattern of repetition and difference. Based on these patterns of plot, I would argue that each story/chapter focuses on users’ relationships to technology and report how these technologies affect their relationships to their ontic selves. For instance, just as Aristos Blanco’s letter-writing makes him feel “more real” and “truthful” as he contemplates suicide, Maria Rubinstein’s lack of cellphone service makes her feel “unreal,” trapped in an Eastern dreamscape. It’s worth noting that feelings of being (their conception of real and unreal ontic selves) are accompanied by bodily intensities, as in Ebling’s orgasmic “electrical prickling” (10). This is to say that though I am understanding the Internet as a primarily psychological/cerebral technology thus far, I do not mean to argue Internet subjectivity does not distribute and intensify affect; quite the opposite. Take, for instance, when the nameless adulterous narrator of the chapter “How I Lied and Died” directly addresses the audience to identify the transformative operations of (Internet) technology: “How strange that technology has brought us to a world where there are no fixed places anymore. You speak out of nowhere, you can be anywhere, and nothing can be checked, anything you choose to imagine is, at bottom, true” (147). The narrator of this chapter imagines a new existence for himself apart from his wife and with a secret mistress, and he understands this pleasure as both bodily and psychological in nature: the sexual charge comes from the fabricated secret enabled by his new phone. In reflection, he draws a plain and simple fact from his experience of with technology, namely, that “a single existence is not enough for human beings” (156). The narrator ultimately exposes that it is the creation of a new virtual existence, a self-mediated through technology, rather than the woman he is with that gives him the most fulfillment: “most of all I always loved the [woman] I wasn’t with at the moment, the one I couldn’t be with, from whom the other one was keeping me separate” (149).
Fame often parallels the (hyper)real feelings enabled by using technology with the act of reading itself. The novel makes this parallel most explicit in the internet profile persona of ‘moll-wit’ in the chapter “A Contribution to the Debate.” Moll-wit’s online persona is fantastically juxtaposed with his material existence in “Real Life (the real one!),” and posits his internet self as a pragmatic necessity for actualizing what he calls “Life Sense:”
You know my username moll-wit from other forums. I post a lot on Supermovies and also on TheeveningNews, on literature4you, and chat rooms, and when I see bloggers serving up bullshit I let them have it. Username always moll-wit. In Real Life (the real one!) I’m in my mid-thirties, quite tall, medium build. During week, I wear tie, office regs, whole capitalist racket, you do the same. Has to happen if you’re going to realize your Life Sense. In my case writing analyses, observations, and databases: contributions to culture, society, political stuff. (113)
The pragmatic necessity of ‘Life Sense’ flies out of perspective as the reader becomes more absorbed into moll-wit’s larger-than-life internet persona. The deeply entertaining prose-style of moll-wit’s voice de-emphasizes the “sense” part of the phrase “Life Sense,” and it becomes less about understanding the ‘capitalist racket’ moll-wit elucidates (and still less about the real/embodied self [the self of “Real Life”] of moll-wit outside the forum) and more certainly about the style of representation itself. In other words, the act of representing becomes more meaningful than the object it assumes to represent: style over substance. Representing an emotional and cognitive self on the Internet is “a lot cooler” than “Real Life (the real one!)” amounting to a triumph of the Internet self as “more real” than the capitalized “Real Life.” Indeed, compared to the novel’s other characters, moll-wit’s Internet persona is hyperreal —hence Kehlmann’s the tongue in cheek addition, “(the real one!).”
It is no small detail that moll-wit wants nothing more than to be made a character in one of Leo’s stories, which further elaborates on the stylistic refashioning and indeed immaterial permanence that internet subjectivity aspires to:
Holy Ninjas: being in the same house as Leo Richter who made Lara Gaspard. The guy who decided what she saw and did. Shaking his hand was almost like shaking hers — you pierce my meaning? And then, at that moment, in the darkness of my room, I had an A-1 flash. If you’re surfing the net as much as I am, then you know — how to say it? Well, you know that reality isn’t everything. That there are spaces you don’t enter with your body. Only in your thoughts, but definitely there … Leo used stuff he saw? Guys he met? Events that happened? Yes, he could even use me. Nothing against it! Appearing in a story — really no different from being in a chat room. Transformation! Transport yourself into some other place. In a story I’d be someone else, but also me. (123)
Moll-wit proclaims that his insider knowledge of the Internet media form allows him to declare that “reality isn’t everything” and that the Internet is a “thought-driven” space that defies material conditions, “but is definitely there.” Of course, the insistence of this ontic subject’s existence despite its immateriality seems to push back on Jameson’s ‘flatness.’ It’s as if the human being has become so flat that he dissolves into particles or sense-data that his ever in flux, always aspiring to “Transformation!” Jameson’s 2D characters are distinguished from the 3D characters of the nineteenth-century novel, but it would seem that the characters of Fame are not dimensional in the sense that they lack parameters: their emotional and cognitive span is at once infinity and nothing and are primarily creatures of an affective becoming. In the end, moll-wit does not see Leo again, and he laments that “Reality will be the only thing I have: job and mother at home and the boss and the Überpig Lobenmeier, and the only escape forums like this” (134). The desire for escape is rendered in terms of moll-wit’s “Real Life” socio-economic situation, but Khelmann then breaks the third wall with moll-wits ironic concluding statement: “All I have forever is me. Only right here, on this side … No alternative universe … And I know that I’ll never, ever, be in a story” (134). Of course, the irony here is that moll-wit’s is in fact in a story where is Onternet self is one in the same as his narrativized, novelistic self.
If Kehlmann’s Fame presents social web that imagines self-actualization or ontic alterity through various digital and nondigital medias, then Rachel Cusk’s Transit acts as a foil to this configuration of internet subjectivity. Unlike Kehlmann, Cusk’s novel features a single protagonist who narrates the novel and is herself a novelist. Cusk’s protagonist does not delight in the kinds of fanstastical self-creation through media that Kehlmann’s characters do, and neither does she engineer connections among the novel’s many characters. Rather, Transit’s mysterious protagonist, Faye, functions like narrative antimatter: she is a narrator and character that wants to efface herself from and into the text. Faye is an amalgamation of the surfaces and spaces she records, and she is just as omnipresent as she is absent because it is only she that links those spaces to each other. In terms of plot, the novel is a series of interactions that have remarkably similar narrative arcs: Faye encounters a person whose existence feels contradictory or unrecognized somehow. They tell her about it, and she records what they say. She refrains from openly intruding herself into the stories she retells. I want to suggest that even though Transit does not explicitly rely on social media or even other figures of technology, Transit’s form still begets an Internet subjectivity.
To do this, I want draw attention to the novel’s framing scene. The novel beings with retelling of a story about an email sent to Faye her by an Internet astrologer. Faye paraphrases the email sent to her by the astrologer, who tells Faye that she has important news concerning the events of her immediate future written in the stars: “She could see things I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky” (1). Faye then records the superfluous rhetoric of the astrologer — her belief in fate, personal connection, humanity’s inherent kindness, dignity, and “cosmic importance” (2) and subjects that information to interrogation:
It seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human. As a result her sympathy and concern were slightly sinister; yet for those same reasons they also seemed impartial. (3)
Faye is suspicious of the astrologer’s computer-generated character; it renders her concern “sinister” while also granting it “impartiality.” In so describing this computer-generated self whose prose bears no resemblance to Faye’s, the text also proposes that the reader to use this algorithm as a template for understanding Faye herself. For what else is Faye if not an ‘impartial’ listener whose sense of concern in the lives of others (or at least the level of concern needed to meticulously record their words) seems slightly “sinister” if not judgmental? After describing the email, Faye tells the story of a friend who believes there had been “a great harvest” of the “language and information from life, and [that] it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original” (3). In that she too “grows more substantial and more relational than the original,” Faye’s narration becomes a social media platform in its own right. Where the characters of Kehlmann’s story use media to actualize a hyperreal version of themselves, Cusk is not interested in re-crafting a self-narrative and instead proposes that the most acute novelistic subjectivity is itself a kind of media platform, a “mechanized interface” whereby “the erosion of individuality” is enacted by “the distillation not of one human but of many” (3-4).
A pertinent commentary on how the novel wants its reader to regard Faye might be understood through the instance of Jane, the student writer obsessed with the paintings of Marsden Hartley because, as she states, “He’s me” and “I’m him” (134). After Jane tells Faye that she and Marsden Hartley are the same person, Faye asks her “if she was talking about identification,” because “it was common enough to see oneself in others, particularly if those others existed at one remove from us, as for instance characters in a book do” (134). Here the novel implicitly addresses how to read characters in fiction, but Jane frustratedly states that Faye’s understanding is wrong, that it’s not ‘identification’ and that draws her to Hartley, for they “had in fact nothing in common at all” (135). Jane “was not interested in [his paintings] objectively, as art” but “they were more like thoughts, thoughts in someone else’s head that she could see. It was seeing them that had enabled her to recognize that those thoughts were her own” (134-35). This scene contrasts reading a novel for identification with reading a novel for thought-harvesting, and though Faye is given more authority than Jane, her preoccupation with characters like Jane who locate their authentic selves (or rather their ontic selves) outside their bodily ‘realities’ actually mirrors Faye’s own self- effacement in her narration. Not only that, but because the text does not use quotation marks or paragraph indentations to signal that a character other than the narrator is speaking, the attribution of who said what and thought what is often questionable. Cusk’s uniform, paragraph-driven prose is a stylistic choice that makes Jane’s assertion that her own investment in the art object is more like ‘thoughts’ that she could claim as her own appears more and more plausible by the novel’s form. This phenomenon of simultaneous self-effacement and self-actualization through reproduction appears to draw an yet another unique affordance of social media: the repost or retweet, which essentially allows users to reproduce the material of other users on their own profiles and in effect claim it as their own.
Faye’s Internet subjectivity is truly new insofar as it diverges not only from that of the rounded, or whole, individual but also from the playfully superficial postmodern subject. Hers is a presence that gains substance only through the others that she represents. The difference I want to stress here is between a model of subjectivity that actively self-produces and creates and a more passive model that acquires substance from borrowing and re-production. To illustrate this difference in social media’s terms, we might think of Kehlmann’s Internet subject as the sort of individual who creates their character online, thus a character of the sort that Illouz describes, one that temporarily displaces the embodied self as one’s core identity. Cusk’s subject, however, would retweet or repost content that others have generated to create a subjectivity. To be clear, though, Faye’s claiming others’ information as the content of one’s own Internet self does not reveal a state of being but dramatizes her style of relationality. Both models of subjectivity are equally laying claim to a self without an origin, and they both, as Jane insists, “dramatize” the art object’s connection to its apprehending subject (138). In one of the novel’s final scenes, Faye finally offers some sense of a motive for the larger narrative and her style of silent recording. She reveals an incident from her own life that occurred just before the time of the novel commences: her kids are waiting for their father to get home, and even though she knows that “nothing particularly important” will happen when he returns, Faye confesses that she nevertheless felt “something was being stretched to breaking point by his absence, something to do with belief: it was as though our ability to believe in ourselves, in our home and our family and in who we said we were, was being worn so thin that it might give way entirely” (233). Faye frames her divorce as a crisis of belief and identity. Rather than explain the reasons for the divorce and why it cannot be reversed, Faye recounts how her oldest child bashed his younger brother’s head against the kitchen countertop, re-enacting a scene of domestic violence he had witnessed and did not fully understand, which she — and evidently he, at some level — identifies as the blow that breaks up the family. Interestingly, this primary causal event does not rise to the level of trauma. The novel as a whole takes for granted that Faye, though emptied of a certain delusionary identity, need not project a new one. If this novel were written, say, fifty years ago, it would confront Faye’s trauma, but this novel operates under the assumption that trauma, insofar as it is a crisis of belief and identity enacted by a fracturing of one’s self-narrative or bodily integrity, can be effaced like the Faye’s own self. By contrast to the traumatized women of early twentieth century novels, however, Faye is not condemned to put her life on hold until she can relive and re-integrate her trauma into a new self-narrative. We might say that she prefers to move out of that identity and into many other superficial lives, much like those who populated the social network of Fame.
Although Faye is what Jameson might call a dead subject in that she negates the roundness that comes with internal conflict, to leave it at that would not account for her habit of poaching on other subjectivities and (I daresay) her own investment in futurity. In the wake of her divorce, Faye is surrounded by an “atmosphere of haunting,” and sense of defeat and “powerlessness that people called fate” that she was “forever trying to deny or dispel” (241). The novel maps out her flight, by means of listening and learning, from the deterministic force of a stable self-informed by “personal concepts:”
… what mattered far more was to learn how to read that fate, to see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity, let alone in personal concepts like justice and honour and revenge, just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. I had found out much more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible. (243)
Because the novel never reports exactly what Faye learns from listening, the novel evidently values the process of Faye’s becoming via listening, reading, and recording instead of what is learned. Faye’s belief in learning and her desire to read “truth” in others’ stories feels a bit like the “absurd hope” of the narrator in Fame’s “Rosalie Goes Off to Die,” who in the end briefly considers the righteousness of ‘ruining’ his story of the terminally-ill Rosalie by miraculously curing her: “for a moment I feel I’ve done the right thing, as if mercy were all-important and one story less didn’t matter. And at the same time, I have to confess, I have an absurd hope that someone someday will do the same for me” (64). Faye’s investment in futurity and to go onwards registers as an “absurd hope” that the message from the astrologer email may pan out, hence her paying the money to read the astrologer’s forecast (9) and her effort to make a home out of a “can of worms,” “money sink” and downright hopeless piece of real estate (40, 42).
Faye’s willful suspension of disbelief and investment in virtual if not actual futurity finds expression in capacity to absorb and retell narratives. In the broader context of the novel and the subject, it is something more like an insurgence of belief informed by new media ecologies and the possibility of harnessing the operations of social media to serve the individual. While Kehlmann’s episodic novel aligns with an Internet subjectivity of social networks and social media profiles, Cusk’s Faye is a hub and composite of the many self-generated users with whom she interacts. By the novel’s conclusion and throughout the trilogy of which it is a part, Faye hovers as a virtual subject in process, tugged forward by her willful suspension of disbelief in the potential for meaning and meaning making.
“Intervals,” as Jonathan Crary proposes in his book Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an “instant of disorientation” and “site of crisis” in the global present which can disrupt the order of the 24/7 control society (11, 89). As the trait of global capitalism, “the 24/7 control society” investigated by Gilles Deleuze or “the global integrated spectacle” of Guy Debord generates multiple symptoms with the assistance of apparatuses including nighttime lighting systems, televisions, global information networks, and so forth (79). Intervals are crucial for individuals to shield themselves from the infection of these symptoms and open up potential space for “dreaming” an alternative future without capitalism. As Crary implies, “dreams of sleep” here can be interpreted not only literally but also metaphorically. Intervals are the places where "absent-minded introspection," reverie, and “drift of consciousness” can occur and resist the penetration of efficiency, speed, and productivity commanded by capitalism; experiencing quotidian intervals in individuals’ life resembles dreaming during sleep (88).
This paper intends to explore the theoretical value of Crary’s concept of “intervals” and its interaction in contemporary novels with the 24/7 demands of daily life: how do “intervals” in those routines that take the form of a damaged present or moments of disorientation impact the symptoms of and resist the 24/7 control society? Can reading novels per se can be considered as a practice of “dreaming in intervals?”
According to Crary, theorists have theorized different stages of social regulation and suggested a gradual erosion and final deprivation of “the everyday.” Foucault’s theory of disciplinary institutions accounts for the incomplete modernization during one and a half centuries before World War II. Although Foucault proposes the “carceral continuum” as the method to discipline the entire society, there are still “unadministered” and “unsupervised” times and places in individuals' life that to some extent avoids control (qtd. in Crary 68). In the 1950s, as theorists including Lefebvre and Debord point out, everyday life was increasingly invaded by consumption and spectacle; there were also rebellions of the late 1960s in Europe and North American to retrieve the uncontaminated sites of everydayness (70). Since the 1980s, the advent of neoliberalism and the financialization of capitalism signal the ensuing disappearance of unregulated everyday life and the formation of “societies of control” outlined by Deleuze: while disciplinary power still functions within institutions such as schools and workplaces, the previous unmonitored spaces and times between these disciplinary institutions are now also penetrated by “mechanisms of command” and “effects of normalization” (71). Similarly, Debord argues that, at this stage, spectacle is no longer diffuse and inhabits outside certain kinds of “relatively autonomous areas of social life”; Instead, “a global integrated spectacle” is everywhere (qtd. In Crary 73).
This society of the spectacle implies that global capitalism has mutated from a society based on production to an information society that now operates at a microscopic and individual level, owing to mass diffusion of television and the development of global information networks (71). Television as a post-World War II apparatus regulates people’s private time and space and, in so doing, transforms the culture of leisure into homogenous and habitual viewing behaviors (79). Such construction of behavior generates various symptoms, including 1) inactivity or “anti-nomadic” effects – individuals are physically fixed and isolated from each other; 2) political powerlessness – viewers would accept any inequality in the global system which is naturalized by televisional representation, and citizenship is replaced by viewership; 3) technical addictiveness – viewers only repeatedly return to a “neutral void” without receiving any pleasure or “affective intensity” (79-81, 87). Under these circumstances, “habit” or “routine” becomes a quite problematic notion because of its complicity with social control in capitalist profit-making. The habitual mode of life established by television viewing creates the conditions for the dominance of an “attention economy” in the twenty-first century (80). Viewers’ continuous exposure to illuminated screens, new communication technology, and electronic transactions of all kinds blur the boundary between not only entertainment and information but also the private and public (75). The interest of those programs to fix people’s eyeballs is prescribed by the cultural industry so the crisis of consumers’ autonomy emerges since the available options are always predetermined by the outside (75). Individuals are also required to construct a digital identity catering to the capitalist logic if they are to participate in the competition for online attention and career building. Consequently, people tend to take on fragmented breaks while their machines are loading information or connecting with sources of information, which differ from intervals because they are not the result of introspection or reverie and do not sustain it (88).
The symptoms generated by television viewing mode are only intensified during the information era, as suggested by Crary’s use of Sartre’s concept of “practico-inert” to describe the present “institutional everyday world” as “the immense accumulation of routine passive activity” (116). The individual’s mobility and perceptual ability are reduced, Crary contends, if one becomes obsessed with monotonous reproduction. The infinite pursuit of speed renders “waiting” intolerable. The result is a cocoon of control that limits patience in the face of relentless self-interest, which eliminates the possibility for inter-subjective communication and thus the building of a genuine community of mutual caring (118). Hence, as Debord contends, “encounter” between subjects is substituted with “a social hallucination, an illusion of encounter” (120). The stories in Kehlmann’s Fame, including “Voices,” “The Way Out” and “The East,” expose how strangers are connected by shared information until finally their images are homogenized and their identities become interchangeable. Such reproduction of sameness and erasure of intersubjective differences even do not require “encounters” in the virtual world.
To resist the society of control and retrieve our lost human capabilities, Crary emphasizes sleep as the last remaining barrier to a total 24/7 takeover of the “inner self.” Yet, sleep can also suffer appropriation by late capitalism, as we see in some fictional works which demonstrate the externalization and reification of dreams as spectacles and objects of consumption (104). In this sense, the differentiation between “machines and humans,” between “living and inanimate,” and between “human memories and fabricated memory implants” are meaningless (104).
For Crary, sleep and moments when one is lying on the bed waiting for falling asleep, are the “unvanquishable remnants of the everyday” that are “incompatible with capitalism” (127). In contrast to Sartre’s destructive “practico-inertness,” “the restorative inertness” of sleep is indispensable for individuals to regain mobility to act when awake (127). Sleep as a pause disrupts and postposes capitalist accumulation and reproduction (128). Sleep entails our trust in and the care from others, which is essential for community formation (126). For the moments waiting for sleep, we recover our perceptual capacities by attending to our sensations and external surroundings (126). Intervals as such are not only an interruption of the present but also enable us to imagine an alternative future and freedom (126). Nevertheless, the intervals provided by novels can be more radical, violent, and devastating than what Crary perceives here – for instance, the loss of self in Fame and the unethical crimes in the dreams of Kafka on the Shore. Rather than the monotonous everyday activities like sleep, intervals such as would break the continuous control and shatter the routine of normalcy outrageously and then transform the characters into the damaged subjects, seeking an explanation or a way out.
Fame: Intervals as Losing
In the story “Voices” and “How I Lied and Died,” Kehlmann shows how information and communication technology permeates into the characters’ private life and creates double routines and a subsequent dualized self for them. The author designates both protagonists of these two stories as workers in industries relevant to telecommunication. In “Voices,” the protagonist Ebling is an engineer of a computer company who examines and repairs defective computers. “I” in “How I Lied and Died” whose name we never know is the head of the department of administration and assignment of phone numbers in one of the large cellphone companies. Before he buys a telephone, the capitalist 24/7 temporality has already transformed Ebling’s life through occupying his private time by his thoughts pertinent to work and technology:
He often thought about just how much in the world depended on these machines, nearing in mind what an exception, even a miracle, it was if they actually did the things they were supposed to. In the evenings, half asleep, he was so troubled by this idea – all the airplanes, all the electronically guided weaponry, the entire banking system – that his heart began to race. That’s when Elke snapped at him, saying why couldn’t he just lie there quietly …” (Kehlmann 6)
While the interpersonal relationship with his wife has already been undermined by his restlessness in the sleeping time, his private and professional life are both impacted after he establishes a dualized self with the used telephone number and the social network it mediates. Because of an assigning mistake made by the telephone company, Ebling receives a second-hand phone number and consequently numerous calls and messages looking for its previous users. Unable to address this trouble by resorting to the Consumer Service of the telephone company, Ebling plays the role of that “Ralf” and inserts a different routine of life – built by the “voices” from the phone and the breaks of waiting for them – into his previous one. However, rather than coexisting in harmonies with Ebling’s initial life routine, the new fictive life created by the role play detaches him from the former which is supposed to possess more physical connection with him: he suddenly realizes he is sitting at home and watching frustrating TV shows and has totally forgotten to go to work; he also feels that his wife “came from another life, or a dream that had no connection with reality” when he encounters her in the kitchen (14).
In “How I Lied and Died,” the protagonist experiences a similar sense of being lost after dualizing his life, with the assistance of the “ultra-sophisticated technology,” in order to maintain his marriage and extramarital affair simultaneously (147). Questing “who I was” and “what labyrinth I’d strayed into,” the man seems to confront a severer crisis of the collapse of his life at the end of this story than that of Ebling's. After realizing his incapability to orient and manipulate his doubled life, he decides to expose to everyone a “bare” self – the self “without secrets, pretences, illusions, and deceptions” which is symbolized by his nudity (163). Both Ebling in “Voices” and “I” in “How I Lied and Died” believe that the embodied encounter with the people who are unwittingly constructing the dualized life with them would reveal their secrets. Avoiding physical encounters and indulging in fictional encounters on digital mediators suggest the virtuality of life achieved by the information technology which is indispensable for the 24/7 control society.
While the end of “How I Lied and Died” implies an imminent crisis once the highly virtually-constructed lives encounter each other in an embodied way, the story “The Way Out” and “The East” position their characters in more chaotic situations and suggest possibilities of “freedom” generated from “intervals.” The characters of both stories are celebrities whose personal images are publicized on mediums and engaged in the attention economy. Except for the “original” one, there are multiple versions of the character Ralf Tanner in “The Way Out”: the impersonator in the discotheque Looppool, the Angeleno and Chinese “Ralf” reported by anonymous netizens in the MovieForum, and Ebling who has appropriated Ralf’s virtual social network by sharing the same phone number with him. After Tanner creates new life by naming himself as Matthias Wagner, renting a new apartment, and claiming his occupation as an impersonator of himself, the “original” Ralf Tanner as the movie star is replaced by his impersonator who “live[s] as him” for many years and even like “Ralf Tanner” on the screen more than Ralf Tanner himself (71). Yet, the novel reveals that the “original” Ralf Tanner is also a fiction imitating his screen image who is a big star fabricated by “so much work and so much makeup, so much effort and remodeling” to be competitive in the attention economy (68). Through fabrication and imitation catering to capitalist demands, different versions of the Ralf in this story become homogenized, which signals that the vulnerability of the self as another symptom of the attention economy era: “selves” of different people are interchangeable and replicable due to such homogenization.
However, as the title of the story shows, Ralf Tanner’s existential crisis and final loss of the property that he used to possess, including his name, apartment, career, and social network, lead him to “the way out” and his “freedom,” which, although, are not further explained by the author. Similarly, in “the East,” the protagonist Maria Rubenstein, also suffers a sense of disorientation and gradually slides into the verge between a routinized present and another future of “no way back.” As a writer who replaces Leo Richter to attend a trip to a place in Central Asia, Rubenstein is left by the delegation alone in this foreign place when she is supposed to depart for home with the group. Futilely seeking help from the police, she gradually lost mediators which could bring her back to the normalized life and connect her with memory and past: first, intelligible language and her name; then, money, her watch, and her sense of time; her telephone, phone charger, and phone service; people including her husband in the remote place; her valid visa on the passport and political support from police and embassy. The last case suggests that Rubenstein not only disconnects from the private dimensions of life in the control society but also is excluded by the state apparatuses and disciplinary institutions. Compared to the other three stories, “The East” evokes a more drastic departure from normalcy by disorienting its character cognitively and displacing her as a bare life in a foreign space remote from her state.
If we interpret the crisis of disorientation confronted by the two characters in “The Way Out” and “The East” as intervals in which they gradually lost multiple mediation to connect with their past, memory, and previously routinized life, what the stories pose to us is not an alternative and promising future where we can inhabit but more of a question which evokes anxiety and dread and does not lead us to anywhere: where do we attach ourselves to if we lose all the mediation that we rely on previously? Will we fall into another pattern of routines and ultimately be assimilated and controlled by them? In “The Way Out,” readers do not know what kinds of “freedom” or new life Ralf Tanner will finally have after he is free from the artificial “Ralf Tanner” image. Moreover, in “The East,” Kehlmann demonstrates the danger of being controlled by a new set of routine, by portraying how, after receiving food and water from a woman and an old man, Rubenstein starts to work for them by imitating their acts (99-100).
Kafka on the Shore: Subject as “Intervals” and the Reconstructive “Sandstorm”
In the preface of one of the Chinese translations of Kafka on the Shore, Murakami states that, in his novels, he always creates male characters who live outside the mainstream society and establish their systems which hold different values from other people (Murakami). In this novel, there are also many characters who, at least to some degree, do not fit in the “normal” society and are excluded or intentionally distance themselves from the latter, including the fifteen-year-old boy Kafka Tamura, the old men Satoru Nakata, Miss Saeki, Oshima and his brother, the car driver Hoshino, and the two soldiers living in the forest. Here, I hope to expand the concept of “intervals” to understand it not only as a temporal, spatial, or existential crisis. Rather, characters themselves in fictions can live as “intervals” to break the constant continuity of the 24/7 control society due to the misfitness of these subjects.
Take the character Nakata as an example. His specificity is precisely originated in the longer interval where he has remained than other children who also experienced the coma in the “Rice Bowl Hill incident” during the World War II. Later in the novel, Nakata explains this coma as a process of “[going] in and com[ing] out” and causing something out of place, therefore he has to open the entrance stone to “restore what’s here now to the way it should be” (270, 345). While “intervals” proposed by Crary are related to people’s perceptions and capabilities, the coma deprives Nakata of the abilities to read and write while enables him to talk with cats and the entrance stone. This transformation of dis/abilities incurs his exclusion from the society as a damaged and “abnormal” person, which also exempts him from being homogenized as other people, such as his two brothers, in the control society:
If I’d been my normal self, I think I would’ve lived a very different kind of life. Like my two younger brothers. I would have gone to college, worked in a company, gotten married and had a family, driven a big car, played golf on my days off. But I wasn’t normal, so that's why I’m the Nakata I am today. It’s too late to do it over. I understand that. But still, even for a short time, I’d like to be a normal Nakata. Up until now there was never anything in particular I wanted to do. I always did what people told me as best I could. Maybe that just became a habit. But now I want to go back to being normal. I want to be a Nakata with his own ideas, his own meaning. (269)
On the other hand, Nakata is aware of the danger of living as an exceptional character losing part of the abilities to behave normally: “Nakata’s empty inside … like a library without a single book … [and] like a container with nothing inside” (268). Therefore, his empty body lacking its own ideas is utilized by Johnnie Walker and he involuntarily kills the latter. Compared to the other protagonist Tamura, Nakata is also a more functional character whose missions sever for other characters including Tamura and Miss Saeki. Realizing such danger, Nakata believes that “going back to being normal” is a way for him to recover his subjectivity, “his own ideas,” and “his own meaning” (269). However, the process of retrieving subjectivity ends at Nakata’s death in sleep as the novel shows.
But Nakata’s “abnormalcy” largely influences another character Hoshino who befriends him and finally inherits his characteristics including the ability to talk with cats after his death. To adventure with Nakata, Hoshino abandons his routine as a car driver of a truck company who does repeated works every day. Their trip always provides him with freshness because it has nothing to do with habits or repetitions and is always unpredictable. Every time Hoshino asks Nakata what to expect for the next, the latter who has “never been bored in his life” always replies by “I will know” or “I will think about it after I see it" rather than a specific plan (307, 317). The unpredictability of their trip is intensified by Hoshino’s irregular and excessive sleep, to disrupt the habitual sense of continuity.
Nakata’s unpredictable style offers freedom but also a sense of disorientation and discomfort to the driver who is so disciplined by the prescribed life and work routine:
“Anywhere is fine,” Nakata replied. “Just circle around the city.”
“You can go wherever you like. I’ll just enjoy the scenery.”
“This is a first,” Hoshino said. “I've done my share of driving — both in the Self-
Defense Force and with the truck company — and I'm a decent driver, if I say so myself. But every time I get behind the wheel, I know where I’m going and beeline it right there. That’s just the way I am, I guess. Nobody’s ever told me, You can go wherever you like — anywhere is fine. You’re kind of baffling me here.” (318)
There are still repetitions in their process of approaching Miss Saeki – the activity of the second day repeats that of the first day – but they finally make progress after futile searching not because of the repetition but of Hoshino’s mistake which leads them to deviate from the initial plan and arrive at a new place (321). Therefore, the mistake turns out to be “a scary chance” (322). The intervals of staying with Nakata and escaping from the routinized life also enables Hoshino to reflect on his own life and past, which he has rarely practiced before.
The other protagonist Tamura is also an interval-type of subject who intends to escape from the control inflicted on his life and differs from average fifteen-year-old boys from the perspectives of other characters in the novel. After leaving his hometown and abandoning the routine of the previous life that he has to obey since he was born, Tamura himself establishes new routines of eating, reading, and exercising for his life in Takamatsu which is quickly interrupted by the bloody incident baffling him after he wakes up from the coma. In the ensuing plot, his life is intertwined with dreams to travel between past and present, “the real” and “the fictional.” If we understand Tamura’s story as a person’s struggle for his subjectivity and freedom, the statements of the character Oshima are revealing in this regard:
“Perhaps,” Oshima says, as if fed up. “Perhaps most people in the world aren’t trying to be free, Kafka. They just think they are. It’s all an illusion. If they really were set free, most people would be in a real bind. You'd better remember that. People actually prefer not being free.” … So I want you to be careful. The people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best. You deny that reality only at the risk of being driven into the wilderness yourself. (277)
In the 24/7 society of control, freedom of people who strive for resisting being controlled and living outside the normal – like an interval in a continuity – is also dangerous, according to Oshima, because it can create another “real bind” and drive the rebels into “the wilderness” (277). This is also the crisis that the characters in Kehlmann’s stories confront after falling into the intervals of temporary freedom. In this sense, “intervals,” as a space between the status quo and a future-yet-to-come, or as a transition with no definite directions for changes, entail multiple tensions or even paradoxes between, such as freedom and bind, normalcy and wildness, and no rules and new rules.
This paper does not intend to offer solutions to these insoluble questions but wants to indicate that Kafka on the Shore shows another way to understand the intervals as “sandstorm” which is crucial for subject formation. The introduction of “The Boy Named Crow” claims that “sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions … and chases you,” and after you escape, struggle, resist, and survive, “when you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in” – “That’s what this storm’s all about” (2-3).
From his conversions with Miss Saeki, we know Tamura’s escape from home is to avoid being destroyed by the curse, or the external control, imposed on his life:
“You ran away from home, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Was there some reason you had to do that?”
I shake my head. What should I say?
Miss Saeki picks up the cup and takes a sip while she waits for my answer.
“I felt like if I stayed there I'd be damaged beyond repair,” I say.
“Damaged?” Miss Saeki says, narrowing her eyes. …
“I mean I’d change into something I shouldn’t.”
Miss Saeki looks at me with great interest. “As long as there's such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.”
“But even if that happens, you’ve got to have a place you can retrace your steps to.”
“A place you can retrace your steps to?”
“A place that’s worth coming back to.” (218)
In other words, Tamura needs to retrieve the stolen thing of his childhood and restore the “place that he can retrace his steps to” in order to keep on living (218, 280). Therefore, the dreams of incest with his mother and sister are the mediator for the cursed subject to face his inner desire, fear, and anger; and the atemporal place in the heart of the forest is the space for him to introspect the self, forgive his mother who has abandoned him, and thus repair his damaged past (342, 356). These two symbolic representations – dreams and the entrance in the forest – of the “intervals” that he has experienced seem to be the “labyrinth” outside the character but indeed project his inside labyrinth while “the inside and outside are a reciprocal metaphor for each other,” as Oshima points out (313). At the end of the story, after the circuitous process of inner struggle and reconciliation, Tamura leaves the entrance, returns to his life, and will be “part of a brand-new world” (413). The intervals, or the sandstorm, in this novel, focuses on the subject formation of this resisting and also resenting character. They are not only moments of crisis and disorientation but also a process to restore the lost and damaged past, for the subjects to live with the present and a new future.
One effect of novel reading – as a practice of “restorative inertness” and experience of “intervals” – is its repair on our perceptual capability. In his piece, McGurl juxtaposes the concepts of “real time” and “quality time”: echoing Crary’s discussion of 24/7 temporality, “real time” for McGurl is the “technical expression of systematic impatience,” involving data management, media, markets, and so forth, while “quality time” emphasizes physical encounter and interpersonal intimacy (462). McGurl contends that contemporary novels are “the virtualization of quality time” and remove us from the real time of our present (465). The stories created by the authors to resist real-time regime are virtual resistance; but McGurl suggests that experiencing virtual quality time in novels can be understood as a sensory perception itself, recovered by our reading in real time (446).
I consider “intervals” as a helpful concept for reading novels in real time especially during the COVID-era where we are now. The pandemic breaks the continuity of previous routines and habits and creates intervals of disorientation and global crisis. But it seems that we have quickly taken reactions and established new routines and life patterns to normalize the “abnormal.” Therefore, novels and the act of reading novels expose and create “intervals” to defamiliarize us from the new orders and routines, to reflect on the symptoms of not only the pandemic but also damaged past, turbulent present, and potential future.
The contemporary global novel, as I will show, grapples with the collapse of subjective and objective worlds through the technique of prosthesis as a supplement to the self. This concept of prosthesis interrogates the novel as a prosthetic device for the human, a technology that dramatizes the changing relationship between subject and object. Similar to how Fredric Jameson in “The Aesthetics of Singularity” defines the concept of singularity through the collapse of the distinction between form and content, the notion of prosthesis embodies this collapse in the novel. As Peter Boxall observes in The Prosthetic Imagination, the prosthetic condition of narrative that produces the world and gives rise to it in the form of a prosthetic trace replaces the traditional Auerbachian model of narrative as mimesis, where narrative forms refer to the world. The novel through the Bildungsroman, then, becomes a technology of the self and a prosthetic device that dramatizes subject formation. Prosthesis in this respect functions as an extension or supplement to the self, where the novel produces as much as it records the self and is a compensatory act. Novels like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and Rachel Cusk’s Transit deal with the question of the subject in the novel and compensate for this change in subject formation through narrative prosthesis, dismantling the self-consciousness of its narrators and supplementing it through narrative technologies like curation; such narrative technologies, to echo Boxall’s conception of artificial life, work to make artificial supplements vital to being and life itself. The damaged narrator of Remainer stages re-enactments as a way to compensate for his lack of subjectivity and non-presence as narrative subject, ultimately resulting the temporality of singularity — an eternal reworked present; these re-enactments serve to make the subject an object and show how this relationship must constantly be updated in order to remain recognizable to the self. Reno in The Flamethrowers is displaced by technology to propel the narrative and Faye in Transit falls into the role of narrative curator, compensating for a narrative absence by collecting the narratives of others. These novels disturb the form of Bildungsroman as a teleological representation of subject formation and each ultimately function as a “damaged Bildungsroman,” where the subject is supplemented by narrative prosthetics that extend subjectivity beyond its traditional model and bring the mind into contact with the material; this in turn attacks as an attack on the Bildungsroman as a form, where the very form itself is turned into its content.
The Bildungsroman is a form that most explicitly examines and represents the process of subject formation. It is a form dictated by its teleological content: the subject becomes not only integrated into society at large but simultaneously into being itself. The Bildungsroman dramatizes this process, arranging and curating the events that prove to be essential for the development of its subject. In this way, the Bildungsroman can be read as a supplement to subjectivity and selfhood, a form in which the modern liberal subject is created and a selfhood is reified. The Bildungsroman is the form that brings the subject into being and acts as a prosthetic device. The case of the “damaged Bildungsroman” collapses this distinction between form and content, where the form itself is consumed as its content. The teleological development enabled by the traditional Bildungsroman is disturbed in this new formation, featuring subjects who are damaged and use supplementary devices and technologies. In particular, the damaged Bildungsroman interrogates the retrospective recollection of self-production, where the memory of its subjects does not link up with their developmental trajectory. It is through this mode that compensatory acts are made to supplement the representation of the self in the Bildungsroman, highlighting the prosthetic role that the novel form plays in producing the subject and notions of selfhood.
Beginning ex nihlo rather than in medias res, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a novel that explicitly renders memory as central in determining selfhood and subjectivity. Remainder begins where it also ends: aporia. The narrator’s memories, those which defined him as a subject and a self, are lost as a result of his accident, leaving him with “a blank: a white slate, a black hole” (3). This “no-space of complete oblivion” is something that becomes supplemented by the financial settlement surrounding his undefined accident, where it becomes a part of his mind and body alongside the medical apparatuses that keep him alive:
As I lay abject, supine, tractioned and trussed up, all sorts of tubes and wires pumping one thing into my body and sucking another out, electronic metronomes and bellows making this speed up and that slow down, their beeping and rasping playing me, running through my useless flesh and organs like sea water through a sponge — during the months I spend in the hospital, this word planted itself in me and grew. Settlement. It wormed its way into my coma. (4)
The very word “settlement” itself functions alongside his bodily motor functions, where in the process of relearning how to eat food, the act of pronunciation is fused with swallowing: “After I emerged from coma, come of the drip-feed and been put onto mushy solids, I’d think of the word’s middle bit, the -l-, each time I tried to swallow” (4). At work here is the logic of prosthesis, where the damaged mind of the narrator is supplemented through this financial settlement to the point that is operates in tandem with him. The settlement acts as financial supplement meant to replace the memory lost by the narrator and is presented as a “counterbalance to [his] no past, a moment that would make [him] better, whole, complete” (5). Even within the context of the narrator’s medical recovery from the accident, he is augmented by both medical and economic technology. Ultimately, the financial capital gained from his accident is what enables his subsequent pursuit to augment his damaged self; it is an attempt to gain access again to what was lost and in doing so, the novel dramatizes prosthesis as a compensatory logic that seeks to supplement the subject. The capital exhumed from the narrator’s loss of memory becomes the vehicle from which his “re-enactments” are enacted and thus the propulsion that sets the prosthetic devices and technology into place.
The prosthetic element in Remainder originates from a bodily and psychological lack, resulting in a damaged self. As the narrator explains, the brain damage from the accident required physiotherapy in the form of “rerouting:” “Rerouting is exactly what it sounds like: finding a new route through the brain for commands to run along” (19). For the narrator, this rerouting begins with the motor functions of his body, where the act of visualizing precedes movement: “Every action is a complex operation, a system, and I had to learn them all. I’d understand them, then I’d emulate them” (22). This notion of emulation is expressed in terms of plasticity by the physiotherapist: “You’re learning ... your muscles are still plastic ... Rigid. It’s the opposite of flaccid. With time they’ll go flaccid: malleable, relaxed. Flaccid, good; plastic, bad” (22). In a sense, this functions as a remaking of the damaged self, an attempt to repair and fix what is made missing by the accident. This supposedly reparative act, however, is one that is mediated rather than natural. Rerouting functions to make the narrator conscious of his actions otherwise unconsidered or natural. As he describes it, “No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed me that for ever, an eternal detour” (22-23). At work here is the function of rerouting in the logic of prosthesis. This supposed return to the natural — identified by the narrator here as the “flaccid” — is mediated by the conscious action of understanding before doing. The subject is remade through eternal detour, where the mental constructions and processes that constituted selfhood are laid bare; the technologies and prosthetics that created the self are revealed to the narrator. In other words, prothesis functions as a supposed return to the natural that ultimately displaces the natural with something artificial. It is fitting, then, that the narrator’s loss of self is a result of falling technology, something that seemingly replaces what was never made missing.
In Remainder, the internal is made external through the narrator’s re-enactments. These first begin as a way to practice hypomensis—a way to recover lost memories from the accident via a technological reproduction. Following a revelatory Proustian moment in a bathroom, the narrator attempts to reconstruct his lost past through the mechanism of re-enactments. These are also enacted in order to feel a sense of reality, or as the narrator describes it, the ability to feel the “least unreal” (241). After learning about a shooting on his way to Brixton, the narrator reconstructs the crime scene for use in a re-enactment. This is the first re-enactment produced by the narrator that seemingly has no connection with his own memories. Musing on the attraction that the scene has for him, the narrator muses,
[T]his man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him — and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He’d stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut out the detour. Then both mind and actions had resolved themselves into pure stasis. (197-98)
The narrator here expresses a desire for immediacy, one which he hopes can overcome his prosthetic condition—that idealization of convergence and melding with matter and the material world. The distance he wishes to overcome is compared with his rerouted motor functions, signaling the function of re-enactments as prosthetic compensations for his loss of memory. As he later explains, the re-enactments had the goal of allowing him “to be fluent, natural, to merge with actions and with objects” (240). This desire to meld mind with matter is a prosthetic one, a desire that reaches outside of the traditional conception of the human and highlights how the self is supplemented by technology in order to feel real. This feeling eventually leads the narrator to the looping plane ride at the end of the novel, ending with another aporia. In this sense, Remainder is a Bildungsroman predicated on static repetition, a closed loop; through this form, the novel exposes itself as a technology that prosthetically produces the self.
Rachel Cusk’s Transit presents another technology of prosthesis — that of writing and narrative itself. The narrator of Transit, the once-named Faye, seemingly has a spectral presence in the text. Faye’s narration primarily consists of listening to others, who also at points nest the narratives of other people into their own. The consequence of this in terms of Transit’s narrative is the elision of Faye herself, as she becomes a vessel for the stories of others and ostensibly maintains only a transparent selfhood; similar to the narrator of Remainder, Faye’s narrative in Transit disturbs the developmental logic of the bildungsroman and complicates the process of the retrospective recollection of self-production by constructing the self only through others. Alongside Faye being only named once in each book of the Outline trilogy, the fact that this is a trilogy that shows little continuity or development over its three installments further highlight this and is also a way to consider it an example of singularity. The stories and memories of others are the prosthetic device by which Faye constructs her selfhood and subjectivity, as they become part of her. The form of curating these stories thus becomes the content and gives further context to the novel’s place within the genre of autofiction, where the distinction between form and context collapses.
Transit begins with Faye receiving an email from an astrologer with clairvoyant information about Faye’s immediate future. The astrologist seemingly senses the fact that Faye has “lost [her] way in life, that [she] sometimes struggled to find meaning in [her] present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come” (1). It is this invocation by the astrologist that establishes the damaged character of Faye, producing a damaged self that leads to Faye’s seemingly absent or empty narratorial presence, as Faye herself is aware that she “had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions” (2). To Faye, the astrologist reads as unreal and immaterial as the email itself: “It seems possible that the same computer algorithm that had generated this email had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human” (3). Fay then recalls an anecdote of a friend who, while in a deep depression following his divorce, feels a growing attachment and “something akin to love” for artificial, computer-generated voices, more than he ever felt for his wife. He explains how “it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original, that there was more tenderness to be had from a machine than from one’s fellow man. After all, the mechanised interface of the distillation not of one human but of many” (3). This notion of faux-humanity established here introduces the primary prosthetic logic at work in Transit — that being the distillation of many humans into a single narrative or output. The notion of humans creating and thus being representative of the faux-human mirrors the way in which Faye’s memories become part of her and embodied in the narrative itself. These memories are reincorporated and distilled into Faye’s narrative as it serves to construct her selfhood and subjectivity.
Many of Faye’s anecdotes and memories shared concern the process of representing selfhood in something external to the self. These collected and curated instances dramatize the prosthetic logic at work in the text, where the distance between subject and object collapses. In a conversation with the builder renovating her house, the builder explains how clients “after a week or two they forget you’re there, not in the sense that you become invisible – it’s hard to be invisible … when you’re knocking out partitions with a claw hammer – but that they forget you can see and hear them” (52). The builder explains further, “In a way … he felt his clients sometimes forgot he was a person: instead he became, in a sense, an extension of their own will. Often they would start asking him to do things, like people used to ask their servants” (53). The builder in this sense becomes an extension of the other’s will, a device that can manifest internal will into something material and external. During Faye’s hair appointment, her stylist Dale shares the peculiar habit of his friend, a plumber who would make sculptures in his spare time: “These sculptures were constructed entirely from the materials he used in his plumbing job: lengths of pipe, valves and washers, drains, waste traps, you name it. He had a sort of blowtorch he used to heat the metal and bend it into different shapes” (67). Notably, Dale explains how these sculptures would be crafted only in a fit of artistic ecstasy while the plumber was high on crystal meth: “He’ll wake up on his garage floor in the morning and there’ll be this thing beside him that he’s made and he’s got no memory at all of making it … It must be really strange … Like seeing a part of you that’s invisible” (68). This sort of reworking of physical material, especially materially associated with one’s profession, shows how Faye — and by extension Cusk herself — rearranges and curates the material of others to show that part of yourself that is invisible. This notion of invisibility highlights the apparent transparency of Faye as a narratorial presence, where we only learn about her through the stories and memories of others that she herself chooses. Rather than a kind of mimetic representation of the self, it is mediated and prosthetically extended through this act of curation, a compensatory act for a presence that feels absent.
Though Faye seemingly remains absent from the narrative, we can see how this prosthetic logic is at work in combing mind with matter. At one point, Faye is speaking with Jane, a student of hers. Jane reveals her obsession with the life of American painter Mardsen Hartley, an obsession that seemingly happens by coincidentally coming upon a retrospective of his work in an art museum. This fixation comes from the fact that she sees herself as a double of him: “He’s me, she said … we’re the same. I know it sounds a bit strange, she went on, but there’s actually no reason why people can’t be repeated” (134). Jane explains how Mardsen Hartley’s paintings appear to her like thoughts of her own: “They were more like thoughts, thoughts in someone else’s head that she could see. It was seeing them that had enabled her to recognize that those thoughts were her own” (134-35). Jane specifically notes, “Rather than mirroring the literal facts of her own life, Mardsen Hartlety was doing something much bigger and more significant: he was dramatising them” (137-8). Here, the mirroring of one’s own life in art — a mimetic act — is instead conceptualized as dramatization. Jane sees the representation of her thoughts in the art of another person entirely, yet it becomes internalized and made part of her. The art, then, functions as a prosthetic piece to augment the self and make it whole, much like the narration of Transit itself. Despite Faye’s absence as full presence in the text, it still bears her authorial and prosthetic mark. Jane recounts a memory of flipping through unopened and abandoned cookbooks from her parents, mesmerized by the “lurid pictures” of food with “colours alarming and bewilderingly unreal” (147). Jane further explains, “Sometimes a hand was visible in the photograph, appearing to execute a culinary manoevure: it was a white hand, small and clean and sexless, with scrubbed, well-clipped nails. It touched things without leaving a mark on them, or being marked in return: it remained clean, unbesmirched, even as it gutted a fish or skinned a tomato” (147-48). This almost transparent hand is representative of the prosthetic logic of Transit, wherein material that exists outside the self is remade to effectively construct it. The form of Transit and curatorial thus enacts the creation of content, where the hand represents the prosthetic trace in arranging the representation.
While the works of McCarthy and Cusk are concerned with acts to compensate for memory, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is principally a novel about a motorcycle. Reno as a narrator is displaced by the use of technology in the novel, where it is her motorcycle that drives the plot and augments her sense of self. The novel itself opens with a melding between man and machine in a flashback to World War I, where T.P. Valera kills a German soldier with a motorbike headlamp. This moment is subsequently juxtaposed with Reno riding across the Nevada desert on a Moto Valera; from the moment we are introduced to Reno, she figures as a background to the movement of a motorcycle: “I wasn’t in a hurry, under no time constraint. Speed doesn’t have to be an issue of time. On that day, riding a Moto Valera east from Reno, it was an issue of wanting to move across the map of Nevada that was taped to my gas tank as I moved across the actual state” (3). Reno the protagonist thus folds into Reno the city, and the prominent figure here is the motorcycle; this is further emphasized by the fact that Reno is the only name we know the protagonist by, a name that is merely a nickname adopted from the constant use of it by others. Indeed, we learn more about Valera’s motorcycles and tires than Reno herself, who is displaced by the technology in the novel, even becoming the extension of a camera by becoming a model for color-timing control strips.
In Reno’s life, this technology compensates for this narratorial lack of presence and depth. We see here how a love for the Moto Valera ultimately displaces the forthcoming love story between Reno and Sandro. Sandro too is a stand in for the machine he represents, as Reno herself first introduce him in full to the reader with his familial origins: “Sandro is Sandro Valera, of Valera Tires and Moto Valera motorcycles” (23). Later in the novel, Reno learns at the Valera Villa about the original last name of Talia Valera was Shrapnel: “She had changed it to Valera because she didn’t want the stigma of her great-great-great-grandfather’s invention, the shrapnel shell, a thing that was far more famous than the man it was named for. The shrapnel shell came before the name Shrapnel, and not the reverse” (254). At work here is the logic of prosthesis through displacement, where the human is replaced by the machine it makes. Reno’s own childhood fascination with the land speed record holder Flip Farmer takes upon this idea of displacement: “Young girls don’t entertain the idea of sex, their body and another’s together. That comes later, but there isn’t anything before it. There is an innocent displacement, a dreaming, and idols are perfect for a little girl’s dreaming” (21). As Reno recalls the time she got her hand autographed by Flip, she describes him in terms of movement: “We weren’t individuals but a surface he moved over, smiling and remote … If he had returned my gaze, I probably would’ve washed his autograph from my hand” (21). For Reno, romance and sexual desire are figured as riding a vehicle, one which demands a displacement on her part; this non-presence becomes the most authentic form of existence for her, where the only true self for Reno is through the prosthetic extension of the technology she operates.
Reno’s augmentation with technology via the motorcycle is a feature that stretches back to her childhood. The motivation for Reno’s land art project originates in the drawings she did while skiing as a child, conceptualizing as a way to draw “in time:”
[W]hen drawing became a habit, a way of being, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing … it as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, ... to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edges, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. (9)
This desire to be traceless informs not only Reno’s project, but also her relation to the motorcycle and desire for speed. By reaching such high speeds, she wants the motorcycle to leave no mark much in the same way she melds with the machine. When riding the Moto Valera around New York City, Reno as the rider becomes one with it, and they share an ontological orientation and plane: “It made my city a stage, my stage, while I was simply getting from one place to the next … It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being” (297). The simple act of movement propelled by the motorcycle unites her selfhood with the machine, literally taking her from one place to the next throughout The Flamethrowers. Even when she is not on the bike, it informs her sense of being: “I had the bike outside, unseen, but it had become a kind of mental armor” (302). The motorcycle becomes a prosthetic addition to the self, one which acts as an extension of her. Reno at one point finds herself leaning “over the railing periodically to be sure the Moto Valera was still there” (307), as if even in her separation from it her selfhood still depends upon it. Indeed, this too offers a way to read the interspersed histories of the Valera family, as if Reno’s story cannot be told without them; they provide a history of motorcycles and tires, which become part of Reno herself.
Remainder, Transit, and The Flamethrowers all dramatize the logic of prosthesis at work in the global novel, where selfhood itself cannot be represented without the augmentation of narrative itself. In this sense, we see how form becomes content, itself an echo of the logic of singularity. The logic of prosthesis in these novels complicate our understanding of the Bildungsroman as a form, as these novels dramatize how the novel form itself augments our conception of the modern liberal subject. By playing with the notion of a “damaged Bildungsroman,” these novels attack the form of the Bildungsroman itself and display the ways the novel displaces the natural with something artificial in an attempt to return to the natural, a logic that presents the inhuman as human and the human as inhuman.
In Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and the End of Leisure, Dennis Broe traces the development of two competing philosophical concepts of seriality in critical history. The first is the Nietzschean concept of seriality as the “ever-repeating eternal return” where time does not advance but stays in a perpetual state of repetition and circulation (Broe 137). This persistent circulation defies any notions of beginning and end, inducing, instead, an “endless duration” in which meaning is canceled and replaced by time itself. The phenomenon of bingeing testifies to the addictive nature of such a seriality. The second concept of seriality derives from Hegel’s concept of totality. According to Broe, rather than focusing on the temporal aspects of seriality, this second conceptualization considers seriality through a more structural and spatial approach, seeing it as a way of revealing totality, as multiple elements accumulate and build to an understanding of a meaningful whole (138). In this conceptualization, seriality does not empty out meaning but reveals a deeper meaning by mapping out different and sometimes contradictory aspects of a totality, the whole picture of which is often too large and too multidimensional to be contained within a single work (Broe 138). For Broe, despite being highly differentiated, these two concepts of seriality often work in tandem in contemporary art and entertainment industry (142). Their collaboration reflects a struggle to balance between the need to engage an increasingly insatiable audience on the one hand, and the artistic ambition to capture truth and reality on the other.
In this paper, I argue that several of the novels we encountered in this course operate through a form of seriality that conforms neither to the concept of addictive eternal return, nor to that of revelatory totality, although they exhibit certain features of both. Like the serials of “ever-repeating eternal return,” the narrative of these novels is marked by the lack of a sense of progression or development, and an obscured idea of beginnings and ends. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, for example, the protagonist creates re-enactments of certain events and puts them on loop. These events have some common characteristics, yet they are ultimately separate incidents that bear no correlations among themselves. While the scale and complexity of the re-enactments increase, the later ones are not built on or developed from the previous ones. These events appear in the narrative in a serial form only because they triggered a particular sensation in the protagonist. However, throughout the novel, the mechanism behind their triggering effect on the protagonist is never explained. In this sense, their meaning is reduced to the sole purpose of re-enactment itself — a form of recurrence without signification, to appropriate Nietzsche’s words (Broe 139). Despite its non-progressiveness and cancelation of meaning, the seriality of these novels makes a fundamental departure from the seriality of the “addictive eternal return” that Broe theorizes in Birth of the Binge. That is, the addictive eternal return inevitably conceals or distracts the audience or the reader’s attention from its mechanism in order to prompt a continuous response that demands further consumption. Such is the condition of addiction.
However, in novels like Kafka on the Shore and Remainder, not only is the non-progressiveness of the narrative conspicuous, the inaccessibility of meaning is also established early in the narratives. Both novels open with an inexplicable event. In Kafka on the Shore, Nakata, the focus of the second narrative thread of the novel’s dual plotlines, loses his memory and higher cognitive functions in a mysterious accident in his childhood. The novel offers no clue to the cause of the accident and only hints at the reasons why Nakata was the only one damaged by the accident. Similarly, in Remainder, the unnamed narrator suffers memory loss and physical injuries from an accident about which all he can divulge is that “it involved something falling from the sky”. He admits that “it’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that—well, for one, I don’t even remember the event” (McCarthy, Remainder 1). More importantly, while being inexplicable in themselves, these events have a defining impact on the narrative, for they altered the characters’ mind and psyche on a fundamental level, rendering their interiority completely inaccessible to the reader. Both novels adopt a form of a-subjective, a-psychological narration that stays on the surface most of the time, narrating only the material aspects of the characters’ actions without explaining the psychological motivations behind them. Consequently, rather than distracting the reader from the lack of signification in the narrative to make the reader immerse completely in the narrative, these novels frustrate the reader by foregrounding their own semantic impasse, causing the reader to frequently question the meaning of the events and of the characters’ actions in the novel. To some extent, Kafka on the Shore is self-reflexive on this characteristic of its narrative. In a discussion between Kafka and Oshima on Natsume Soseki’s novel The Miner, Kafka comments that he is bewildered by the lack of change and development in the protagonist’s character throughout the novel:
Those are life and death type experiences he goes through in the mines. Eventually he gets out and goes back to his old life. But nothing in the novel shows he learned anything from these experiences, that his life changed, that he thought deeply now about the meaning of life or started questioning society or anything. You don’t get any sense, either, that he has matured. You have a strange feeling after you finish the book. It’s like you wonder what Soseki was trying to say. It’s like not really knowing he’s getting at is the part that stays with you. (Murakami 89)
In this way, these novels disrupt the condition of addictive consumption, thus deviate from the ultimate goal of the form of seriality as “ever-repeating eternal return.”
While the seriality of these novels does not conform to the concept of seriality as “eternal return,” it challenges Broe’s second conceptualization of seriality as revelatory totality as well. In “Serial Aesthetics: Philosophical, Artistic, and Media Histories of Seriality/Hegel and Richard Kimble on the Trail of the One-Armed Man,” Broe highlights the significant potential of seriality to illuminate the plurality of and contradictions between different aspects of late-capitalist society, noting that “a primary way of knowing the totality was through its contradictions, its dialectical movement, with contradictions either resolving toward a higher unity or — under late-capitalism, in Adorno’s understanding of the negative dialectic — often not resolving at all” (143). Broe uses Zola’s serial novels on the Second Empire of Napoleon III as an example of seriality as revelatory totality, as opposed to seriality as ever-repeating eternal return. Broe argues that while Zola’s serialized novels focus on a single family, the Rougon-Macquart family, their seriality cannot be reduced to a genealogy. The novels are not linked together through a timeline that details the progression of the family’s life or the development of the characters. Each of these works has its own thematic focus and can be read as a self-contained, independent novel. Rather than tracing the family’s lineages in a chronological order, they assemble and map out cumulatively the totality of the particular socioeconomic milieu of the Second Empire by portraying different aspects of the Rougon-Macquart family members’ lives (152). The process of plot’s unfolding is also a process of fragmented pieces emerging and coming together to form a larger picture.
To some extent, Kafka on the Shore and Remainder show certain traits of such a seriality. It can be said that both novels operate through a process of mapping, emphasizing the characters’ movements and the space they create, occupy or investigate, instead of temporalities and the chronological order of the events. In other words, the structuring principal of these two novels seems to be more spatial than temporal. In Kafka on the Shore, the two main characters Kafka Tamura and Nakata travel through both actual landscapes of Japan and fictional spaces of dream and fantasy as they set forth on their parallel odysseys. They both have many strange encounters and novel experiences during their journeys, and these encounters and experiences are closely connected to the locations they are at. Nakata is “empty inside” like “a library without a single book,” as he describes to Hoshino (Murakami 329). In his journey, he follows his intuition and his intuition is often guided by geographical information alone. He does not know what to do, only knows that he needs to get to a specific place to know the next step. As the two plotlines unfold, the connections between Kafka and Nakata start to emerge, as it is revealed that the place that Nakata is drawn to, Shikoku, is also where Kafka is hiding. The novel thus resembles the structure of seriality as revelatory totality on a spatial level. The geographical information fits together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, revealing patterns that are previously unrecognizable. In Remainder, the ways in which the narrator navigates the space around him also reflects his obsession with circuits and pathways. His re-enactments map out different kinds of space, from the domestic space of an apartment room to the crime scene of a violent crime. They can also be seen as essentially attempts to overcome time and temporality through the manipulation of space, for what the narrator is trying to re-create are not actually an apartment building or a gas station, but moments, specific points in time that enable him to momentarily transcend his post-trauma condition and return to a state before the accident.
However, while the seriality of these novels is “revelatory” in some sense, rather than piecing together a narrative totality, they lay out events that do not add up and cumulate to a “meaningful whole.” There seems to be a sense of randomness or capriciousness in the way unrelated elements are strung together and certain aspects of an event are illuminated while others remain hidden and beyond our grasp. In other words, even when fragmented pieces of information fit together and reveal a pattern, it is still impossible to make sense out of that revelation. In Kafka on the Shore, while it becomes clear that there are connections between Kafka and Nakata, and that they have an impact on each other’s story, what exactly are their connections remains unclear. After Kafka finds the lyrics of the song Miss Saeki wrote for her lover, he notices that the lyrics contain a line about little fish raining down from the sky. Only a few days before, Nakata has made fish and leaches fall from the sky. The lyrics also mention “a knife that pierces your dreams”, which seems to allude to the strange night that deeply unsettled Kafka, from which he woke up with blood on his shirt without any memory of how it got there and soon afterwards learned from the news that his father has been murdered (245). Discussing these unsettling events with Oshima, Kafka mentions that “it feels like everything’s been decided in advance”, that he’s “following a path somebody else has already mapped out for [him]” (214). Oshima replies that, from his perspective, what he’s describing is the motif of fatalism that is frequently seen in Greek tragedies. Using Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as an example, he tries to convince Kafka that the bizarre, unusual events in these fatalist texts serve a thematic and metaphorical purpose: “everything in life is a metaphor. People don’t normally kill their father and sleep with their mother, right? In other words, we accept irony through a device called metaphor” (215). However, when Kafka asks him about whether the series of “strange, inexplicable events [that] are occurring one after the other” is also a metaphor, Oshima has to admit the limit of his theory: “Maybe … But sardines and mackerel and leeches falling from the sky? What kind of metaphor is that?”
Similarly, in Remainder, the repetitions and circulations do cumulate some information about the narrator. However, ultimately, they do not bring the reader closer to the narrator’s mind or interior world. As the story unfolds, it is not difficult to recognize that there are a few common characteristics among the events that trigger him and make him want to re-enact and set on loop: these events all create a sense of immediacy through their unexpectedness. They all in one way or another enable the protagonist to enter a state where he feels liberated from the confines of the physical matter of his body and achieves fluidity in his movements. Nevertheless, there is still a sense of ultimate unpredictability in the protagonist’ actions. While the narrative presents the psychological motivation behind some of his actions — he wants to recreate the building in Paris he remembered because inside this remembered building, “all [his] movements had been fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural” (McCarthy 67), there are also things that he does for which the narrative offers no explanation at all. For example, sitting in a coffee shop, the narrator watches a group of homeless people moving back and forth on the street. He then describes going up to one of them and inviting a homeless person to a meal, recording their interactions and conversations in details, only to reveal, a few pages later, that none of this has actually happened: “The truth is, I’ve been making all this up — the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins — but I didn’t go across to him … Crap: total crap … I didn’t go and talk to him. I didn’t want to, didn’t have a thing to learn from him” (60). The novel offers no clue as to why the narrator decides to concoct this scene with the homeless person, and why he suddenly retracts from his fabulation. This scene remains a singular event in the novel — although, in foregrounding the narrator’s unreliability, it also makes us suspect its singularity.
These examples from the two novels show that neither of the texts is concerned with solving mysteries or presenting a “meaningful whole.” Instead, both novels foreground the loose ends in their narrative, performing a deliberate anti-revelatory or anti-resolutory tendency. In this way, they present a seriality that is decidedly different from the two types of seriality Broe theorizes. A crucial characteristic of this new form of seriality is that it is centrifugal, rather than circulative or centripetal.
In the third chapter of Birth of the Binge, “This is Your Brain, This Is Your Brain On Serial TV: Autism and Addiction as the (Psychoanalytic) Hyperindustrial Condition,” Broe draws on Roland Barthes’ reading of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine and his theory of the three types of codes that condition a reader’s response to analyze the strategies of contemporary television. These three types include the hermeneutic or enigma codes, the proairetic or action codes, and the semic or character codes, with the hermeneutic or enigma codes being the most essential one among the three. According to Broe, in Barthes’ theorization, the hermeneutic or enigma codes “structure the unfolding of the plot”, primarily through “a series of devices that suspend and retard the story by evading the truth (‘snares’), mixing truth and deliberate obfuscation (‘equivocations’), providing partial answers, and proclaiming the mystery or circumstance is unsolvable (‘jammings’)” (88). As Broe points out, for Barthes, the core of the narrative is precisely this “process of concealing the truth from the reader or viewer in an attempt to ‘arrest the enigma, to keep it open’ (Barthes 1974), with the enigma codes working at cross-purposes to the action codes to retard the narrative” (88). If what Barthes describes here is a typical centripetal narrative, where the continuity of the plot is sustained by persistently reaching towards yet never quite arriving at a hidden truth or enigma that constitutes the center of the narrative, Kafka on the Shore and Remainder present an opposite case. Both novels seem to have an implied yet invisible center. Yet rather than reaching towards this center in pursuit of a revelation or resolution, they present a post-enigma world, where the story no longer revolves around the enigma. Nevertheless, the narrative is still captured by the enigma’s impact. In this sense, these novels present a seriality that engage us in a new way. This new form of seriality could be understood in relation to the concept of the aftermath. In both Kafka on the Shore and Remainder, the story is already the aftermath of a previous traumatizing event that conditioned the characters in an irreparable way yet remains completely unknowable and unintelligible to them throughout the novel. The characters are therefore navigating a post-trauma world that is mediated, conditioned, and defined by that traumatic event. The series of events in the narrative are connected loosely together without constituting a meaningful whole because they are the effects of a cause that has become too distant and lost. In other words, both Kafka on the Shore and Remainder present a world that has been so severely mediated that it becomes impossible to retrace the process of that determining mediation itself.
In both novels, there is a sense of danger and malice beneath the surface of the narrative. The narrator’s gratuitous fabulation of the scene with the homeless person in Remainder could be seen as a manifestation of this underlying malicious affect. Although the nature of the incident that traumatized the narrator is never disclosed in the novel, the fact that it involved technology and the “bodies” responsible for the accident are willing to pay eight and a half million pounds to the narrator in exchange for him never discussing the nature and details of the incident with anyone is enough for us to detect the unusualness of the event, as well as the severity of its potential impact. On the surface, the incident only caused physical injuries and memory loss to the narrator. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes obvious that the narrator’s ability to experience emotions has also been severely damaged. At the beginning of the novel, when the narrator discusses with two friends what he should do with the compensation money he just received, one of the friends suggests that he could use the money to establish a resource fund for developmental projects in Africa. He tries to imagine what it would be like and tries to “feel some connection with these Africans,” yet he finds himself unable to do so: “I wanted to feel genuinely warm towards these Africans, but I couldn’t. Not that I felt cold or hostile. I just felt neutral” (McCarthy 37). However, this sense of neutrality or indifference gradually escalates into a complete disregard toward others. He is never concerned about objectifying the actors he employed to perform in his re-enactments and asks them to act exactly as he required even when he is not present to experience and participate the re-enactments. After learning that the black cats he ordered to be put on the rooftop of his apartment building keep dying from falling off the roof, he only asks his crew to find more black cats to replace the dead ones. His inability to register any feelings toward anyone and anything beyond their role as constituents of his re-enactments eventually leads to his final plan at the end of the novel, in which everyone who has worked with him and for his re-enactments, including himself, would be killed by a plane crush he arranges. The narrative therefore presents a seriality of the aftermath. While the narrative alludes to the presence of a “truth” that could explain the narrator’s actions, it does not move toward this “truth” but depicts the fragmented and inexplicable world of a person who no longer has the ability or interest to retrace to a center or find a meaningful totality.
In Kafka on the Shore, there is also an underlying sense of malice. Both Nakata’s and Kafka’s stories seem to originate in some form of violence. The “Rice Bowl Hill Incident” that caused Nakata’s disabilities happened during the Second World War. The only description of the potential cause of the incident is described as a “brilliant flash of silver” in the sky, which Nakata’s teacher assumed to be a B-29 plane. In Kafka’s storyline, Kafka learns that Miss Saeki, whom Kafka speculates to be his mother, once wrote a book about lightnings and recalls that his father has been struck by lightning before. Miss Saeki’s lover died in the student riots. The entrance of the timeless world which Kafka enters towards the end of the novel is guarded by two soldiers who tried to escape the war, yet eventually went missing in the forest. Whatever the truths behind these series of events maybe, the novel presents a world of their aftermath, in which it has become impossible to find a meaningful totality. Compared to Remainder, the mediations in Kafka on the Shore are more literal and more recognizable. The prophecy Kafka’s father made about him derives directly from Oedipus’ story. Kafka’s name certainly signals to another archetype. Even the figure of Kafka’s father is mediated by the figure of Johnnie Walker. Despite their apparent associations, the novel warns us about their dubious status as metaphors, for they could no longer be traced back to an original subject in the post-enigma world.
In “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” Fredric Jameson characterizes the late-capitalist or postmodern moment “by the displacement of time by space as a systemic dominant” (128) and a corresponding “reduction to the present or reduction to the body” (106). Contemporary aesthetic space becomes, then, a space of events, entities that exist and are consumed only in a present, since they occupy a space without occupying time. By their nature, these singularity-spaces deny the possibility of historicity or (true) futurity for aesthetic objects, without which these objects become forms, “pure present[s] without a past or future" (113). This in turn necessitates the presence of the curator, the figure who arranges for presentation various art objects so that they might create a novel aesthetic space — itself another form in the present. In the absence of an actually-existing temporality, the forms/arrangements of these objects and spaces becomes the content for which they are consumed. Jameson gives us the paradigmatic example of the flash mob: not a movement (which would imply temporality) but an event whose idea lies in its form, as an arrangement of bodies that occupies a space for a present instant. Taking this as an accurate symptomatic diagnosis, this leaves us with the question of how this singularity-space interacts with novels, which exist within this context and yet themselves produce particular relations of space to time, in content as in form.
To move from this diagnosis of the present cultural moment to an analysis of how novels operate within it requires us to go back to Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay on the chronotope, an essential concept if we are to talk about space in the novel. In “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel,” Bakhtin identifies a “chronotope” as the “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (84). This is, crucially, a way by which we can conceptualize the literary interaction of space and time, each of which (as the definition suggests) always implies the other. The chronotope appears in many forms, but each greatly affects the ways in which the novel can portray the action and the characters. Not only does the chronotope of a novel delimit the internal possibilities for subject formation, but it is also the means by which the novel mediates real experience: “a literary work’s artistic unity in relationship with an actual reality is defined by its chronotope” (243). Nor is a novel bound to one specific chronotope. Within a novel, one chronotope may abut another, or mix with it, or contain it — in other words, the novel operates as a complex arrangement of chronotopes. It is in this sense that we may think of the contemporary novel as itself exercising a curatorial function with respect to relations of time and space. The novel can thus engage with singularity-space without becoming merely another example of it. To understand literary space in the contemporary novel, then, it is not sufficient to understand the relationship of space/time in contemporary late-capitalist society — one does not reduce to the other, though the two are always linked. But by looking at what our novels do with space — what sorts of spaces they use, how they position these spaces temporally, what happens (or doesn’t) to subjects within those spaces — in the context of Bakhtin’s chronotope and Jameson’s singularity, we may be able to articulate an understanding of space that allows us to engage with the contemporary novel more fully.
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is a novel in which a very particular relationship of space and time visibly structures the action. After being involved in a freak accident, the narrator develops an obsession with feeling “real,” a realness he construes as immediacy. As he remembers an old apartment he once lived in, he thinks of how he’d felt moving through that space: “Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them and let them run though me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real— been without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour” (67).
Being “real” for this narrator means a lack of mediation between him and his actions: he wishes to exist and engage with the world around him without this chain of first understanding how to try to be; no more mediative “detour” between existing and acting. Interesting here is that just as the desire for “realness” slides into a desire for a specific kind of immediacy, so does that desire slide into one of eliminating distance, of merging with space. That begins to appear in these lines: he speaks of merging with his movements and of reaching a point when there is “no space” between him and then. But it becomes even more evident when we consider the context: what sets off this thinking about being “real” is his memory of a particular space. The sudden memory of that old apartment building where the narrator lived — he’s not quite sure when, or where — triggers his feeling of realness; i.e., it is only in the context of this specific space that he felt real. The narrator makes the same identification explicit in the next paragraph: “Right then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my money. I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again.” His sense of realness (and so of that form of immediacy he describes) becomes inseparable from the space he identifies it with. “Feeling real again” becomes conditional on his being able to reconstruct “that” particular apartment building. This moment in many ways provides the impetus for the rest of the narrative’s action: his realization here leads him to contact Naz and to create his first reenactment, from which all the following enactments stem. And this driving impulse is rooted in a suggestive web of connections in which the narrator marries realness, the removal of mediation, and an actual space.
There remains an element of this impulse, however, that the text only reveals later. Just as Bakhtin tells us it’s impossible to truly separate space from time, so does the narrator, fittingly, add a temporal dimension to his spatial desire. He tells Naz, the logistics guru he hires, that the space must be filled with “re-enactors” who perform specific tasks whenever they’re “on” (86). These tasks are themselves repetitive: an old woman cooks liver “constantly,” a piano teacher makes mistakes in his songs and “repeats” them slowly, a motorbike enthusiast takes his bike apart and puts it back together again all day (88-89). At the narrator’s say-so, all the participants move like so many machines along their tracks, performing the same set of actions endlessly and without variation. As long as the building is “on,” which, we’re told, is from hours to days at a stretch (160), we enter a temporality different from those we traditionally associate with novels. We are neither in the flow of forward chronological narrative movement, nor in a world of disjointed flashbacks, nor in a fantasy realm of time travel. Instead, the narrator either sits in his room or wanders the apartment as the same actions play out, over and over, in the same location. These actions lead nowhere, come from nowhere: they are the present on loop. They are the most mundane actions, and we see them play out in the text for almost one hundred pages. Eventually, as the narrator constructs more reenactments, this temporal tendency reaches an apotheosis in the reenactment of the tire shop: there, we learn, rotating teams of actors have been performing the same scene non-stop for three weeks (236). The novel nods playfully at this temporal obsession via the name of Naz’s company: Time Control.
Given that this glossary entry began with Jameson’s essay, the parallels between the space-time of these reenactments in Remainder and Jameson’s singularity are difficult to ignore. What is more of a reduction to a spatial present than these reenactments, where the same event occurs endlessly in space? While Remainder’s peculiar chronotope does, undoubtedly, play with the logic of singularity, it complicates it in several key ways. The first one comes from its blending of realness, immediacy, and space. The narrator acts quite explicitly as a constructor of spaces via intermediary: “We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hire contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers” (111). The list continues for a bit longer, and, before we see the reenactment in action, the novel shows us in detail what had to be done to that space before it could be used. There are countless alterations: large portions of the building are replaced, much of it is painted over (or dirtied up), fake damage is introduced — significantly, the person responsible for much of the interior work is a set designer for films. All of this happens, of course, on two levels: the narrator and his army are doing the construction within the narrative; at the same time, these spaces exist as settings within the novel — what we see is as much the novel’s creation of space as the narrator’s. Though Remainder avoids the classically postmodern move of explicit meta-referentiality, it does refer to the connections between these two levels of construction. Nearer the end of the novel, the narrator begins hallucinating the presence of a “short councilor” who often serves to question the actions of the narrative. On his first visit, he mentions the work that went into creating the five re-enactments that have composed the plot up to this point, before asking the narrator, “’for what purpose?’” When he gets no answer, he asks a more pointed question: “‘Does he, perhaps, consider himself to be some kind of artist?’” (237). The spaces (and temporalities) constructed by the narrator are here explicitly linked to those constructed by an “artist” — in other words, to the way by which a work mediates reality by representing it. This connection suggests that we should see the novel’s treatment of space here as a both a literary representation of physical space, and as a literary representation of literary space.
This becomes more important if we look at another way Remainder plays with its spaces frozen in time; namely, in their generation of intensities. Here is the narrator describing the first time he walks through his reenactment of the apartment building: “For a few seconds I felt weightless — or at least differently weighted: light but dense at the same time. My body seemed to glide fluently and effortlessly through the atmosphere around it — gracefully, slowly, like a dancer through water. It felt very good” (146). Shortly afterwards, as he reruns the reenactment, he describes the feeling again: “Here the sensation started returning: the same sense of zinging and intensity.” Elsewhere and most frequently, the narrator describes the feeling he has in these re-enactments as a “tingling.” We see this intensity synthesized with the narrator’s desire for immediacy/reality most clearly in the reenactment of the first shooting. Explaining his desire to reenact the man’s death, the narrator uses the same language we saw when he first articulated his desire to recreate the apartment building: “… he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him — and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them” (197). When he recreates the man’s death, he again feels the “tingling” throughout his body, this time so intense that he loses consciousness. Whatever the exact nature of this intensity — sexual, spiritual, etc.— the narrator describes it always as a positive, as making him happy. And yet, this intensity always arises from what we might otherwise have been tempted to see as a closed system — a singularity. Somehow, in these spaces frozen in time, spaces in which often nothing profound happens, something real is produced. The time-stuck space in Remainder is charged, productive, anything but neutral. The novel does not quite show these singularity-spaces as having some sort of future, or as leading to something; instead, the novel presents these spaces as generating some excess quality or intensity — a remainder, as it were.
There is one more element of this novel’s treatment of space that should prove useful, and it has to do with a jump to the real. As we’ve seen, the spaces of reenactment in the novel are all artificial, carefully staged by the narrator (and by the narrative, of course). Yes, they generate intensity and create the feeling of realness the narrator craves, but these intensities and feelings are, ultimately, temporary. They are staged, after all. Indeed, when asked by the short councilor when he’d felt the most real, the narrator cites not one of his reenactments, but the moment when he’d stood on the street asking for change. But there remains one “reenactment” that we haven’t gotten to: the final (real) bank robbery. The reason he does this, the narrator tells us, is the much the same reason he’s done everything else: “to become fluent, natural to cut out the detour” (264). But the narrator also gives us something like a theoretical explanation for the shift between reenactment and true event. He tells us that it required,
a leap to another level, one that contained and swallowed all the levels I’d been operating on up to now […] Yes: lifting the reenactment out of its demarcated zone and slotting it back into the world, into an actual bank whose staff didn’t know it was a re-enactment: that would return my motions and my gestures to ground zero and hour zero, to the point at which the re-enactment merged with the event. (265)
This “leap” to a superior and subsuming level is, for the narrator, a move from his artificially constructed spaces to a “real” space. The contents of the bank robbery — the getaway car, the frightener, the bag of cash — are transmuted from stage play to real deal, to the “event” itself. Of course, it doesn’t translate perfectly: there is a kink (or a lack of a kink) and things go sideways when it comes to the bank robbery. Something is inevitably lost, or doesn’t quite carry over, in moving from the artificial space to the real one. And yet, the narrator sees that bank robbery, despite everything, as “a happy day,” with the tingling intensity he feels reaching a new peak — though something disappears in the move between the artificial and the real, something else is produced. The novel as a whole invites us to read this shift not only in terms of a literary depiction of the relationships between real spaces, but as a representation of the relationship between literary (taking the guise of the explicitly constructed spaces of the reenactments) and real space (represented in the novel by the actual bank).
To synthesize these spatial operations of Remainder somewhat, we can say that in many instances the novel depicts a literary space that conforms to a Jamesonian logic of singularity, but that these spaces inevitably serve as loci where an excess — of meaning, feeling, take your pick — can be produced. This excess is one that cannot be contained wholly within a purely literary space: it is always based in a connection to the real, though it never collapses into a mere reflection of it. This is, of course, another way of describing a mediating relationship between literary and real space, which this novel does by deploying these literary singularities only to, in its final moves, leap from them to the “real” thing. Thus is the narrator able to produce real intensities even within the artificial (literary) spaces, and to carry those intensities from those spaces into the real space of the bank and the plane where he ultimately finds himself, figure-eighting in the sky above the tarmac. Remainder, then, provides a particular understanding of the mediating work of literary space within and against the dominant chronotope.
Space plays a somewhat different role in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Zombie novels (or novels with zombies, at any rate) always provoke spatial anxieties: throw up the barricades to keep zombies out, flee the overrun house, find the space where you can hold them off. Zone One is no different in this respect, and the main movement of the narrative action involves a clearing or reclaiming of space. Floor by floor, building by building, Zone by Zone (hypothetically), Mark Spitz and the other sweeper teams clear out infested spaces. One of the somewhat unusual elements of Zone One is that we find ourselves well past the Last Night, the moment when the first zombies appear and everything breaks down. Instead, much of the novel takes us through the process of rebuilding, a process which — barring a few hiccups like an early attack on Spitz — is not presented as particularly fraught or even dangerous. Our survivors are well armed and armored, and the elimination of the skels has become routine, bureaucratic. When Spitz talks of the purpose of the sweeping project, he says, “The city could be restored. When they finished, it could be something of what it had been. They would force a resemblance upon it …” (102). And elsewhere: “Why else were they in Manhattan but to transport the old ways across the violent passage of the calamity to the safety of the other side?” (48). The immediate implication is one of spatial progress, or at least return: unlike Remainder, where space existed largely trapped in time, here space appears to be the locus for something like a reversal of time, or rather a preservation of a specific, pre-crisis time. The goal can be seen as an attempt to subordinate time to space: there is no need to leave this space because they can simply restore it, can undo what time has done and return to the “old ways.”
In many ways, the existing society — the American Phoenix — already does just that, occupying the same space in the wrong time. There are two glaring (and quite funny) instantiations of this tendency. The first is that somehow, corporate branding and sponsorship survives. In the wake of the apocalypse, looting remains strictly illegal, we’re told, except when a corporate sponsor “pledges” their company’s goods, essentially saying that they’re up for grabs:
Buffalo created an entire division dedicated to pursuing official sponsors whenever a representative turned up, in exchange for tax breaks once the reaper laid down his scythe and things were up and running again. … There were understandable difficulties in tracking down survivors in positions of authority over, say, the biggest national pharmaceutical chain or bicycle manufacturer, but they strolled into camp from time to time, with the typical scars but eager to contribute. They generally put a price cap on their goods or specified a particular product line or family … (39)
On one level, it demonstrates an amusing depiction of the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism — here we are, now that the world has actually ended, and still we have our corporate sponsors. On another, it exemplifies the tendency implied by the stated mission of the new America: the new society not only has the goal of returning a now-gone time to the same space, but it actually operates as if it already has. The second instantiation of this tendency plays out similarly when Mark Spitz runs into a representative from Buffalo, here in New York on official business. Ms. Macy of Buffalo asks Spitz to lend his “expertise” as she and a local bureaucrat inspect a boutique hotel. It’s unclear, for the reader as well as for Spitz, what exactly is going on: Ms. Macy first expresses disappointment that the front doors are damaged, then asks about the quality of the rooms, and, finally and bizarrely, begins commenting on the interior decorating. “Those will have to go,” she says in reference to some wall art, before going on:
“I’m thinking kids,” Ms. Macy said. She slashed a red marker across her mental wipe board: Let’s put our heads together, team. “Pictures of pheenie kids in the camps, cavorting and pitching in. Pressing seeds into the soil and sharpening machetes. No machetes — kid stuff. Smiling and laughing and doing kid stuff.” (167)
As Ms. Macy continues updating the aesthetics of a vacant hotel in a zombie-filled city, Spitz finally asks her why. She tells him that the government plans to host a summit there, and so it’s important that all those officials and representatives see that “New York City is the greatest city in the world” and that it’s been “brought back from the dead” (168). Again, the novel shows the new order operating with space as if time could be cancelled — note the present tense of “New York City is the greatest city,” as if NYC were still anything more than a few barricades and miles and miles of zombie-filled towers. Although the novel (up to this point) has shown us the largely successful efforts to remove the zombies — and so (re)create a sort of endless pre-crisis singularity time within a devastated space — these moments, by their sheer absurdity, suggest the impossibility of this operation.
The novel demonstrates in other, subtler ways the impossibility of eliminating or negating the past of these spaces. Though we see much optimistic language about the future, about the American Phoenix rising from its ashes to return these spaces to what they were, the novel shows us that the past always seeps in. Take Spitz’s squad mate Gary: Gary’s two brothers died on the Last Night, and, though he survived, he speaks only in the first-person plural, as if the two of them were still with him. There is also the phenomenon of PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder). Spitz first comes across it when he sees two soldiers, one of them curled in a fetal position and vomiting. He asks whether the soldier was hurt or bit: “‘No, it’s his past,’ he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moaned some more. ‘His past?’ ‘His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand’” (55). The blurring (at least on the auditory level) of “past” with PASD lets us read the many textual references to PASD as acknowledging the futility of negating temporality: “Everyone suffered from PASD [past],” Spitz tells us. This carries over into the structure of the novel itself. While the main action — the sweeping of buildings, the attack on Gary, the eventual collapse — takes place over three consecutive days, much of the novel consists of Spitz’s flashbacks to earlier moments. Mark Spitz and the society he acts for spend the entirety of the novel meticulously erasing the vestiges of temporality from the spaces in the novel, always with the explicit end goal of returning those spaces to a specific point in time — “the end in abeyance” as Spitz tells us in one chapter. And yet the novel, in both content and form, consistently rejects the coherence of this operation, everywhere inserting the impossibility of recreating this singularity.
The novel ends, of course, with an utter rejection of these efforts: suddenly (or so it seems) everything falls apart. Settlements on the map are wiped out; Buffalo goes dark. Zone One, barricaded and armed against time, sees its spatial integrity give way as the wall is breached. The zombies are here framed in natural or oceanic terms: they are a “roiling torrent” against a dam, a “sea of the dead,” “a stream” with its “invisible current” (244, 258). The image of a rising tide overtaking a fortified place evokes the idea of time catching up with space — especially now when the imminent future of climate change is often discussed in terms of rising sea level. In any case, the text explicitly connects this dead sea with time. Just before the zombies breach the walls, Mark Spitz sees them as “an argument: I was here, I am here now, I have existed, I exist still. This is our town” (246). He sees this rising tide of the dead as an irrefutable temporal logic, an argument framed as the impossibility of cancelling the past in such a present. The logic operates by an affirmation of temporality that then bleeds over into space; the zombies articulate their past existence and their continuation into the present, and then claim the “town.” Eventually, the novel leaves us with almost nothing but the past and the dead: the spaces of survival are overrun, the survivors themselves are scattered or dead, and Mark Spitz steps willingly into the stream of the zombies.
But at least one thing survives; at least one space, in all its strangeness, retains some sort of legibility. We learn earlier in the novel that Spitz once worked on a wrecking crew, clearing the highways of vacant cars with a team of other survivors. One of these, The Quiet Storm, insisted seemingly without reason on grouping the vehicles in a particular way. As the novel comes to a close, Spitz explains why. When they flew over the interstate in a helicopter, he saw the arrangements from above: “Five jeeps lined up south by southwest” are “one volley of energy;” “ten sport-utility vehicles arranged one-eighth of a mile apart east west were the fins of an eel … or a fletching on an arrow aimed at —what? Tomorrow? What readers?” The text, and Spitz with it, characterizes these arrangements in space as literary (elsewhere he talks of their “grammar”), as having “readers,” though those readers might be unknown or purely hypothetical. Spitz then contrasts the futurity of this literary space with the inevitable death of the spaces constructed by the Phoenix:
She wrote her way into the future. Buffalo huffed over its machinations and narratives of replenishment, and the wretched pheenies stabbed their bloody knees and elbows into the sand as they slunk toward their mirages. … Mark Spitz saw her mosaic, in its immense tonnage, outlasting all of Buffalo’s schemes, the operations under way and the ones yet to be articulated. What readership did she address? Gods and aliens, anyone who looks down at the right time, from the right perspective. (233)
Unlike the spaces of Buffalo — all characterized by a futile attempt to construct a space in an old temporality, to reject the truth that the singularity that was is no longer—this space projects “into the future.” For the second time, the novel emphasizes its literary nature, raising again the question of readership. The Quiet Storm’s text remains illegible for now, but not incoherent; it holds the promise of meaning for someone of the right time and perspective. What fundamentally separates the spaces of Buffalo, NYC, et al. from hers is their atavism, their being an attempt to articulate a space of a no-longer existing temporality. In a way, the text cautions us about the need to temporalize literary space and suggests that literary space (as Bakhtin also wrote) cannot be wholly separated from the dominant chronotope of the real world. At the same time, the novel embraces the possibility of a literary space that speaks with the future, a space that is of a particular moment but extends meaning far beyond it.
In exploring how Remainder and Zone One play with the notion of space (and literary space specifically), I don’t mean to say that they do quite the same thing. They are not just two examples of a particular chronotope; they are not just examples at all. Both novels engage in varying but overlapping ways with the function of literary space within the current moment, and both suggest the ways in which literary space retains the possibility to speak beyond that moment. Remainder constructed spaces that, while apparently following a Jamesonian logic of singularity, generated surplus intensities and meanings, ultimately retaining a mediating and not purely symptomatic relationship with “real” space.” In Zone One, the spaces of New York end up being not so different, though perhaps inverted: attempts to construct literary space that disregard the real and operate only via the logic of past or dead chronotopes fail, leaving no meaning or intensity behind. But: a genuine literary space remains a possibility here as in Remainder, incorporating (and so mediating) the existing real moment while at the same time allowing for signification above/beyond it. These novels suggest the ways in which the literary space of the contemporary novel can chronotopically mediate real lived conditions. In doing so, they do not present literary space as inevitably liberatory or radical. Yet the novels insist on these spaces’ liberatory potential, a potential that operates within, from, and yet against a dominant such as singularity-space.
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 One place to identify the starting point of this trajectory is in The Science of Logic: “There is nothing, nothing in heaven or in nature or mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation” (68; qtd. in Guillory 343). A more detailed account of mediation in Marx cannot be given here, but see István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation.
 Interestingly, Guillory’s article concludes by (heuristically) posing Benjamin against Adorno in the opposite manner, having the former advocate for the dominance of “material technology.”
 Benjamin was well aware of such intermedial interactions. As he writes of the process by which film conceals its own apparatus: “The equipment-free aspect of reality [becomes] the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology” (115). Somewhat differently, Horkheimer and Adorno attribute this phenomenon not to the medium but to the culture industry’s tendency to “[train] those exposed to it to identify film directly with reality” (100).
 Though Galloway attaches these two strains to two modes of thinking that have existed since Plato, they also mark “cultural logics” that do not accidentally emerge as dominant at certain points in history. Bolter and Grusin likewise trace their immediacy-hypermediacy dynamic through “several hundred years of Western visual representation” (11).
 In fact, several of the novels under consideration here begin with characters “falling” into such schemes. Fame begins with a character receiving phone calls meant for a celebrity; Transit illogically begins “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future” (1).
 Beyond the visual implications of these terms — even Debord insisted that “spectacle” was a non-visual phenomenon — we can think of the proliferation of narratives in these novels: the “Last Night” stories of Zone One, the reportage of others’ lives in Transit, the narratives of Fame.
 In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida outlines two broad categories of workers in the creative class: the super-creative core and creative professionals. The latter is responsible for problem solving based on intellectual topics and areas of study (2002).