Writing Technologies


Daniel Cordle and Philip Leonard

Clearly, simply pointing out that technology is a necessary component in these fictional lives is a limited critical endeavour, in danger of reifying technology as something, as so much ‘stuff’, that exists above and beyond culture. True, most literature is full of technological stuff, even if we pass over most of it as so commonplace that we fail to note its existence and, true, one role for a technological criticism is to denaturalise our relationship with this stuff, to make us aware of it. However, a criticism that is serious about the role of technology must look not only for the way in which technology appears in or influences culture, nor even for how culture shapes technology, as if the two are separate territories, but must understand that they suffuse each other, with numerous, complex feedback mechanisms contributing to the ongoing development of a dynamic culture-technology.

This is, in part, a way of making the obvious point that technology is always ideologically inflected. This might mean acknowledging that technological innovation is the product of specific social and historical circumstances, and is not simply produced by individual inspiration, or communities of engineers, working within the prevailing conditions in available materials, scientific knowledge and so forth. It also means that technologies become, to use a technological metaphor, the lenses through which we see the world. The railway trains that kill the heroine in Anna Karenina and the flock of sheep at the beginning of The Octopus; the trains that take Hurstwood and Carrie out of Chicago in Sister Carrie; and the railway tracks that are a recurring image in Gravity’s Rainbow, are all riffs upon the theme of determinism, shaping its articulation in particular ways. 4 They suggest, perhaps, a universe in which fate is no longer a matter for the Gods but is instead a meaningless product of contingent circumstances. In The Octopus the train is also what Leo Marx has called the ‘machine in the garden’, an intrusion of technology into the pastoral idyll, characteristic of United States literature. 5 In Sister Carrie the railway tracks become the embodiment of the overwhelming forces, characteristic of the naturalist aesthetic, that inevitably sweep Carrie, a ‘fair example of the middle American class’, to her peculiarly unsatisfying success. 6 In Gravity’s Rainbow they speak to Slothrop’s paranoia about the sinister forces shaping his life, they point to the sensitivity of post-war culture to the tracks onto which it is thrown by conditions established during World War Two (that one character is called Pointsman is not coincidental), and they conjure up associations with the death camp trains. It is the image of the train that facilitates all these meanings, although it does not, of course, mean that they could not exist without it.

As well as a world view, though, what technology gives us is a sense of self, whether through the hydraulic metaphors of the steam age that inform Freudian conceptions of repression, pressure and release, or through the information storage and processing technologies of the second half of the twentieth century that have revitalised the ‘mind as machine’ paradigm. 7 It is here that the issue of ‘writing technologies’ becomes particularly pressing. If the specific ways in which we process information are what define us as human, then how does writing, itself wrapped up in the processes of coding, transmission and decoding, relate to this conception of self? While this question most obviously gives us a way into contemporary texts like Coupland’s Microserfs and JPod, where writing of a self into being is defined by the narrators’ relation to technology, particularly the word-processing technology that provides characteristic formal opportunities not available to someone using a typewriter or a pen (cut-and-paste; shifting font sizes; transformation of text through the application of algorithms; coding), it would be a mistake to suggest that it is only literature of the information age that is made available to us by the contemporary mind-as-machine paradigm. 8 As well as obvious antecedents – concrete poetry and Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ experiments spring most obviously to mind – in a sense all literature is a product of the collision between the chaos of reality and formal systems (the sonnet; genre; language itself) for making sense of, coding and transmitting that reality. Literature is itself an information-processing machine, albeit one that thrives on ambiguous communication and mistranslation.

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4. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin (1873-77; trans. Rosemary Edmonds, London: Penguin, 1978). Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901; London: Penguin, 1986). Thedore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900; London: Penguin, 1981). Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973; London: Picador, 1975).

5. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964). Marx discusses The Octopus on pp. 343-44.

6. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900; London: Penguin, 1981), p. 4.

7. Richard Dawkins provides particularly incisive comment on the revision in popular notions of machines that are necessary if we are fully to understand ourselves, albeit that the focus of his work is largely on evolution not mind. The following, from the revised edition of The Selfish Gene, gives a taste both of his perspective and his acerbic style: ‘We are in the golden age of electronics, and robots are no longer rigidly inflexible morons but are capable of learning, intelligence, and creativity…. People who think that robots are by definition more “deterministic” than human beings are muddled…’. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989), p. 270.

8. Douglas Coupland, Microserfs (1995; London: Harper Perennial, 2004). Douglas Coupland, JPod (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).