Print or pixel? W(h)ither literature? Twitterature? Earlier this month Jennifer Egan wrote/posted/tweeted a new short story, a Twitter story, called “Black Box” at The New Yorker. This coincided with NC’s publication of selections from Tweet rebelle by Jean-Yves Fréchette, who is the co-founder of the Institute for Comparative Twitterature. And the coincidental connexity prompted Bruce Stone to the following provocative meditation on the story, the medium, change, tradition, nostalgia and literature. Artists are always colonizing the new technologies, but when is the result art and when it is gimmick? Or is there a difference? Bruce Stone has previously contributed fiction and nonfiction to these pages. See his amazing essay on Viktor Shklovsky here. (The author photo above is by David Shankbone, courtesy of Wikipedia.)
1) “Resist the impulse to ask where you are going.” @NYerFiction 27 May
Late last month, Twitter played host (or midwife) to still another literary labor: Jennifer Egan’s new story, “Black Box,” arrived in the world incrementally, as a sequence of tweets posted over ten days from May 24 to June 2—a project sponsored by The New Yorker. The story is a futuristic spy thriller, of sorts, in which ordinary citizens serve their country by becoming cyborgs and seducing high-profile terrorists to capture data, but the piece was conceived expressly for the Twitter platform, composed not in paragraphs but in tweetable units of fewer than 140 characters. The story then appeared, perhaps redundantly, in print, emparceled in the June 4 Science Fiction issue of the magazine—the preferred interface for those few of us, we antediluvians, who, given a choice, still favor actual over virtual reading.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the story has left an unusually prominent Web trail, garnering more buzz than typically accompanies the publication of a short story. After all, why not? The Net, among its myriad services—friend, lover, confessor, taskmaster, teacher, torturer, retail outlet—has proven to be a superb bully pulpit, exquisitely calibrated to feather its own nest (let’s not use the word hegemony), and understandably quick to celebrate any further evidence of its utopian, garden-of-earthly-delights potential. Even so, it’s hard not to read this self-serving ripple effect—the publicity engine of the blogosphere—as a kind of challenge, if not an affront, to the very notion of “print literature,” which by comparison seems so twentieth-century. To put this more bluntly, Egan’s story would draw less attention had it not itself been a kind of cyborg, a blend of long-form narrative and short-burst twexting: the medium is the main story here, and this strikes me as an instance of the cart preceding the tired old horse, an ass-backward state of affairs, perhaps, but typical of the Digital Age itself.
Let me say right away that I wholeheartedly support the idea of exploring the artistic potential of digital media. Indeed, I would like nothing better than to see vast swaths of the self-aggrandizing, attention-splintering Twittersphere glutted and radiant with stories like Egan’s, or the Tweet rebelle of Jean-Yves Fréchette (who appeared in NC’s June 4 issue; see also Gilles Pellerin’s Twitter stories in the March 5 issue). But I’m not yet convinced that such multimedia experiments necessarily constitute an aesthetic revolution. Three centuries (at least) of world literature have anticipated, if not preempted, much of what the new media makes available, both formally and philosophically. And I’m not even convinced that such experiments present the most interesting frontier in artistic innovation. Any writer worthy of the title will have to attend to the alien and beautiful language habits fomented by the Web, but adopting the new media itself for distribution is a trickier proposition. I can’t help but feel that there’s a kind of literal-mindedness driving this brand of genre and platform hybridization: it’s an interesting idea that fizzles, I find, upon execution.
The fault might be mine, I suppose: it might be misguided to measure digital-age works by old-school standards—of artistry, of compositional density—that date back at least to Shakespeare. Perhaps digital-media works properly belong to a new category of performance art, and should be assessed by those terms, with that still-evolving vocabulary. But frequently, the Net is cited as the inevitable successor to the outmoded book, as if the two technologies can’t peacefully coexist but must rather fight to the death in some mediational bloodsport concocted by Darwin, Freud and Adam Smith over lunch. As such, it seems that readers and browsers are required to chalk out the battle lines and take sides. More’s the pity.
As stunt, Egan’s work affords an opportunity to reflect on these broad concerns: the future of fiction and the technological state of the art. But it’s as story, perhaps, in the print-lit sense, that Egan’s work speaks most powerfully and palpably to these very same tensions, the vexed core of the media wars: tensions between the old and new; the technological and the organic; the self and the other; the word, the body and the data processor. Perhaps what’s most surprising about Egan’s story is not its qualified success as a long-form narrative, but rather that it does finally take a side and pitch battle: the tale’s cool, lyrical irony reveals a deep skepticism for the very technological apparatus that it presumes to embrace and exploit.
2) “Imagining yourself as a dot of light on a screen is oddly reassuring.” @NYerFiction 28 May
Egan’s is a skilled hand, clearly, and the story’s tweet-sized utterances are often lovely—abstract distillations of sensory experiences, the narrator’s observations whittled down to pith and poetry, as in this description of a rocky shoreline: “Spurs and gashes of stone narrate a violence that the earth itself has long forgotten.” Or this little gem: “The universe will seem to hang beneath you in its milky glittering mystery.” As a rule, these communiqués tend toward the procedural style of a user-manual, the plot expressed as a compilation of “Field Instructions” for future spies; the tactic yields a stylishly mannered narrative voice, a tone of calculated objectivity (friable, paper-thin), which still manages to convey nuanced psychological insights, especially regarding the pathology of dangerous men: “The fact that a man has ignored and then insulted you does not mean that he won’t want to fuck you.”
Perhaps the most striking feature of Egan’s story is its handling of dialogue. Instead of the aesthetically stale give-and-take of literary “realism,” the Twitter constraints inspire Egan to strip dialogue from its conversational context and embed the characters’ speech—framed as it were—in larger grammatical units. For example, “’Where did you learn to swim like that?,’ uttered lazily, while supine, with two fingers in your hair, indicates curiosity.” Keenly self-aware, the text kindly lays bare the device, describing its own narrational method: “Always filter your observations and experience through the lens of their didactic value.” In this way, the tone of the story effectively parts company with its sensational content, a move that weirdly neutralizes and amplifies the coarse drama and suspense in the plot. The net result is a loose second-person narration, a voice that charts the unsettling, dizzying, poignant middle ground between “me” and “you.” This is the true novelty of Egan’s tale, a formal innovation that is part and parcel of the story’s thematic concerns.
Despite the fractured format, Egan’s story, read on The New Yorker’s page, feels thoroughly cohesive and complete. She manages to sketch a climactic arc in the plot, manages to texture the chronology with bits of backstory and memory, manages even to evoke a sense of sympathy and sorrow for the protagonist. These facts alone suggest the persistence of some old-school notions of narrative in the piece, which indeed run a bit deeper, evident in the story’s generic frames of reference. While the tenor of the action belongs to the futuristic genre of science fiction, the plot retains traces of an atavistic impulse, drawing on an older storytelling realm: the ancient fairy tale (Look for the template of Beauty and the Beast and you’ll find it, altered but abiding). This merging of genres, too, is a clear sign of Egan’s circumspection, her wary participation in this cyberposh landscape of maximized technological reproducibility.
The story’s title is itself an indicator of this skepticism. The “black box” refers at once to the story’s form—the text boxes typical of tweets (more “box” than “black”), preserved also, in larger bundles, in The New Yorker’s print formatting—and to its content in that the protagonist herself functions like the data recorders on airplanes: “Your physical person is our Black Box; without it, we have no record of what has happened on your mission.” This sentence is to be taken literally, the heroine’s “person” hosting an array of bionic upgrades (voice recorder, camera, homing beacon, car alarm). And in the service of the country, she anonymously sacrifices life and limb, submits twice to something that might be called voluntary rape (or patriotic prostitution, if you prefer); she takes a bullet, and even suffers the displacement of cherished personal memories to accommodate the “Data Surge,” the paydirt-striking culmination of her mission. Later, she will be downloaded like a flash drive to retrieve this information (she has a port between her toes), but on this point, readers remain forever in the dark: we never learn the content of this data, never discover the specifics of the terrorist plot that the protagonist is infiltrating. This is a telling omission: absent a clear objective, the heroine’s s sacrifice appears to be a fool’s errand, reflecting a naïve commitment to a dubious cause. In the literal dehumanization and pointless martyrdom of its protagonist, Egan’s story seems decidedly critical of this speculative future.
Elsewhere, Egan renders this negative verdict explicitly, in a series of self-reflexive tweets that link the plight of her protagonist to the project of the Information Age: “In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the American fixation with being seen and recognized. … In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its pains and loves, in favor of the dazzling collective.” This brand of heroism is not just self-effacing, but self-extinguishing: it’s impossible not to read these lines as a comment on the work of Wikipedians, with their do-it-for-free humility and fractious-fanboy know-it-all-ism. When Egan writes, “Technology has afforded ordinary people a chance to glow in the cosmos of human achievement,” she nods at the democratizing promise of the new age, but the irony here is withering, the sentiment steeped in hypocrisy: her story everywhere reveals that promise to be empty, dystopian, hostile to the very notion of the individual human life.
This critique of the new world order feels a bit dated, reflective, yes, of those Wikipedia debates circa 2006, but also harking back to the nightmare visions of Bradbury, Orwell, Rand and Zamyatin. The Web gives us cause to fear the hive-mind, certainly, but over time, it has proven to be an equally adept at engendering narcissism. Et in Hyperspace ego, to bend an old phrase: while the Net breeds anonymity and erodes personality, it steadily nourishes the hedonistic I. Which is to say, wherever we go, we can’t escape the burden of our humanity. That Egan’s story seems to flatten out the paradox isn’t much of a complaint, aesthetically; her adoption of the Twitter platform does add another ratchet twist to the irony, which begins to leaven, artfully, the social commentary. But to my mind, the message speaks louder than the medium here, and in any case, bracketing the technological pessimism in “Black Box” is worthwhile because it affords an opportunity to test the merit of that vision and to correct for its artistic distortions. My sense is that, in and of itself, the Net likely can’t and won’t dictate the shape of the future, whether utopian or dystopian. Whatever problems we have, it might aggravate some and resolve others, but mainly its function will be one of paraphrase; it conscientiously preserves the paradoxes that define us, translates into an electronic idiom the ongoing crisis of who we are.
It would be pleasant and agreeable to end here, with the perhaps predictable conclusion that the Web is less friend or foe than mirror, unlikely to accelerate the devolution of our species. But regrettably, market forces are at play, and whether we like it or not, they force another alarmist question: if the Web doesn’t have designs on our bodies, does it pose a legitimate threat to our books?
In the first pages of On Literature (2002), a book commissioned by Routledge (if I’m not mistaken), J. Hillis Miller makes exactly this prediction: that digital media spell the end of print, leaving literature as a cultural practice to survive in new modes. It’s hard to know how seriously to take this kind of forecast, hard to tell if Chicken Little is a sage or vice versa. Harvard’s Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books (2009), suggests that new technologies might well help to sustain the print industry (at one point, he envisions a book press that works like an ATM). My intuition tells me that reports of the demise of print might be exaggerated, but then again, the forces of consumer capitalism, after years of cascading systemic failures, are capable of anything: the ridiculous can very quickly become commonplace in these times (do the math for yourselves here). So yes, I think we should ask with some urgency what Egan’s experiment tells us about the technological future of long-form fiction, and the viability of online platforms for its distribution. Essentially, we find ourselves hectored by a consumer’s choice, which is always a mug’s game: in what way do we choose to make a story like Egan’s profitable? As an art object on Twitter? In The New Yorker’s print edition, or can this relic be safely phased out to make way for the magazine’s online edition? How will you read Egan’s story, if you choose to read it at all, and what’s at stake in the choice? On these practical points, the lessons of “Black Box” are equivocal.
3. “A single lighted structure stands out strongly on a deserted coastline.” @NYerFiction 28 May
Obviously, Egan isn’t the first writer to attempt a multimedia stunt like “Black Box.” (The fad for cell-phone novels in Japan comes to mind.) A bit further back, in 2006, Walter Kirn also tested the publication possibilities of the Web with his novel The Unbinding, which he wrote and released on Slate in something approximating real time. Throughout the distribution process (the uploading of fresh installments), Kirn invited and in some cases integrated reader’s suggestions with regard to plot and character. Like Egan’s story, Kirn’s not-very-good novel was subsequently bound and sold in print, which itself suggests that the Web isn’t entirely amenable to long-form narratives, at least not in a self-sufficient or profit-maximizing way. In this light, the Web seems like an elaborate, ever-streaming publicity arm of the beleaguered print industry.
The blogroll on Egan’s story also suggests that the Twitter release was in some ways anticlimactic. One writer attempts to celebrate the interactivity afforded by Twitter, yet the respondent tweets that he cites are 1) trivial and 2) limited to the story’s overture movement, as if no one had stuck around for the end (or perhaps felt bullied into silence by Egan’s skill). Another notes the difficulty of sustaining her attention while being inundated with unrelated tweets. (Why do I envision these as farts in a bathtub, rising toward noxious articulation?—Perhaps because I have a five-year-old son.) A third writer, the most inspired, adopts Egan’s own method and renders his commentary in tweet-sized increments: even so, he measures the story by print-lit standards and complains, perhaps rightly, of its tendency toward abstraction.
Clearly, Egan’s experiment points up some of the virtues of unplugged writing and reading, but it also suggests—eerily—that, between books and the Web, there’s really no choice to be made at all. Her story triggers some pause-giving thoughts about the very practice of literary reading.
In times of crisis—to submit, for example, to the sexual appetites of her target—Egan’s protagonist practices the “Dissociation Technique,” the willing of an out of body transit, a moment of Zen-like detachment that insulates her from the cruel facts of suffering and violation. The technique reads like an exercise in auto-hypnosis: “Close your eyes and slowly count backward from ten.” Such passages are poignant and powerful enough in context, but they become even more resonant when we consider that the entire narrational method of the piece—its equivocal second-person perspective, this compilation of impersonal Field Instructions—is another kind of dissociative technique, likewise dampening and deflecting the immediacy and intimacy of human experience. In this regard, Egan’s narration captures the distanciation that is typically associated with virtual reality—that anesthetic world of Facebook friendships, Twitter feeds and Web-chat intimacies, odorless simulacrum of experience. If you’re a Net skeptic, the lives that we record and in some fashion live online likewise entail a kind of existential dissociation, and from these anxieties, Egan forges a literary style.
At this point, deconstructionists would gently remind us of the self-alienating effect of language itself—which black-boxes in all of us in advance, no technology required: the longing for cohesion, integrity, organic wholeness, is nothing but a pipe dream anyway. Point taken. But rather than traverse that bridge too far, I’m seizing on a different question: what are we to do with the fact that Egan’s Dissociation Technique, and its correspondent vision of a monstrously vitiated human condition, evokes, just as pointedly, the very act of reading? The induction of this hypnotic experience of alterity, this election to abandon the body and live at a little distance from oneself: what is this if not a description of the phenomenology of reading? In Egan’s story, the same maneuver that signals the dehumanizing bent of technological progress turns out to typify the cozy practice of reading fiction. The critique, it seems, cuts both ways, reading figured as maybe just another platform for objectification (along with everything else, the heroine does read blithely on the beach). In this light, Egan’s story cautions us from leaping too rashly or separating too neatly between media technologies.
It might be disappointing that, on this fundamental matter—the defense of literature, even print literature, as such—Egan’s text balks, just peers impassively down the barrel of self-erasure. Her stunt begs the question—can Twitter (the Web’s metonym) harbor literary fiction (wholeness, of a sort)? The story’s answer: literary fiction has already been harboring Twitter (disintegration). From a practical perspective (not an artistic one), it might be reassuring if Egan were to confirm our suspicions: that the Net is our black box now, a record of everything that catches the value of nothing, a triumph and a travesty of human individuality and agency, a tool that everyone can applaud (where else is it possible to dilate in this fashion on a recently published short story?), but an interface that only a mother could love. Against this Hydra-headed, Medusa-haired marvel, the homely book would appear to offer a silver bullet, supply a ready antidote. Maybe this dichotomy would be too easy. By Egan’s pen (keyboard? iPhone?), it wouldn’t be true. Instead, her story quietly suggests that literature isn’t necessarily innocent in our undoing: there’s no safe haven, no welcoming pre-digital past to return to.
It’s a bleak vision, maybe, but for book lovers, all’s not necessarily lost. That the story is so rich in style and theme itself testifies, for anyone who needs it, to the enduring value of long-form fiction and perhaps speaks, as well, to the value of its immersive reception in print (the heroine does, after all, read blithely on the beach). Maybe in the long view, Egan’s experiment gives cause for optimism, suggesting that there is hope yet for a future in which the relation between print and Net is dialectical, rather than murderous: a future in which we can still choose to read, not browse, literary works that merit study, compel rereading, works that aspire to a cultural condition of object permanence.
Some have worried that a Net-brokered future might preclude the very production of such works: that the Web and its platforms are coercive, warping human cognition, and that the Digital Age promises to engender, at worst, an intellectual anorexia or, at best, an art of collaboration, a cult of ephemerality. There is a poignant beauty in the latter vision: it reminds me of those Buddhists who construct elaborate mandalas of colored sand, investing hours of painstaking labor solely to bid the elements to wipe away every trace of the composition. There’s a beauty here, yes, where Wikipedians link arms with the Dalai Lama. But literary texts confront the problem of mortality from the other angle, not conceding and courting oblivion, but contesting time and giving transience the finger. (I think of Quentin Compson, in colloquy with his dad who is lecturing him on the transitory nature of his feelings: his stream-of-consciousness refrain, “and i temporary,” begs both question mark and exclamation point.) There’s a beauty here too, and because the Web seems ever more likely to exacerbate, rather than eradicate, the pursuit of singular immortality, the material forces of production and the market forces of human need might well conspire to ensure print literature’s survival. It’s likely that digital media will assimilate most disposable communications and profit from them to their algorithmic content, but it’s possible too that the urge to write and read—under these slower, comparatively tactile print-media conditions—is hardwired into us. Just as tweets aren’t likely to replace tombstones, or porn to obviate sex, books might well prove necessary for us, ineradicable.
Ultimately, I like to think that “Black Box,” as both stunt and story, comes down on this side of the debate; it reminds readers of the power and purpose of literature as we’ve known it, while pointing skeptically to what might become of it and us—perhaps not the most scintillating work of art, but an enjoyable and edifying experiment, on the whole. I like to think that, between the print past and a digital future, Egan’s story confronts us with a choice to be made in the present, one that allows for a thousand compromises and equivocations, but remains important nonetheless. Then again, it’s hard to be sure. As her protagonist reminds herself, and instructs us, to cling to her/our pre-cybernetic persona, she notes, “You will reflect on the fact that you had stopped being that person even before leaving.” It’s hard not to sense something irrevocable here, as if the die has already been cast, the heroine’s irrecoverable self perhaps a teasing analogue of the printed book. The question seems to linger: is “Black Box” a cautionary tale or memento mori? Time, and taste, will tell.
— Bruce Stone
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing here: http://straylightmag.com/?p=1781. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.