Writing

Daniel Cordle and Philip Leonard

‘Not writing, but typing’
Truman Capote, on Jack Kerouac

Technology has frequently seemed to be antithetical to writing. When Jack Kerouac was accused of ‘not writing, but typing’, the insult implied an inhuman quality to his prose, as though the machine on which On the Road was produced had replaced the more transcendent humanity required of the writer. 1 Kerouac, it implied, had become a typewriter, and could therefore not really be considered a writer in the true sense at all. Something as quotidian, as material, as technology might feature in the world depicted by the writer but, this criticism implied, it had no place in the ethereal process of writing. Yet, the very term ‘writing’, though thoroughly naturalised as a metaphor for a particular sort of communicative mental activity, implies a relationship with technology, the pen, which is a medium that translates and directs thought as specifically as the typewriters on which Kerouac, or later William Gibson, famously tapped out their works. Before broaching these complex questions of technology, production and subjectivity, it is perhaps first worth considering the more prosaic ways in which technology is at issue in writing.

Technology does, of course, feature as a set of objects ‘in’ writing, in the sense of being invoked as part of the fabric of the world described by writers. While this may seem most obviously to be an issue in genres like science-fiction, which frequently takes technology as its subject, or procedural detective fiction, in which technologies of forensic investigation are central, it would be a mistake to assume that the most fertile ground for investigation necessarily lies in these areas. If technology is culturally significant, it is significant not only when its novelty directly impinges on our consciousness but also for the ways it is naturalised as an assumed fact of everyday life (indeed, Gibson’s search for a ‘superspecificity’ of reference in his science-fiction is in part an attempt to invest the novel technologies of the future with the everyday qualities of the everyday). 2 Without the technologies of shipbuilding, timekeeping, cartography, navigation, industrialisation, and civil and military administration and suppression, there could have been no European expansion into the wider world and no broader world of Empire into which to flee for all those characters of nineteenth-century realist fiction, like St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, who leaves Britain to carry out missionary work, and Monks, in Oliver Twist, who gets his comeuppance far from home. 3 Unassimilable at home, many of these characters can be tidily got rid of abroad, their disruptive influences lost in the margins of Empire.

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.

The concepts of ‘writing’ and ‘technologies’, as well as the more singular idea of ‘writing technologies’ do, of course, raise questions that are not addressed by the above examples. What remains urgent and compelling is the need to interrogate technology’s centrality to emerging modes of representation, as well as its decisive role throughout literary and cultural history. In its efforts to question this complex relationship, Writing Technologies will ask:

1. R.J. Ellis outlines the derivation of Capote’s offhand remark. R.J. Ellis, Liar! Liar!: Jack Kerouac – Novelist (London: Greenwich Exchange, 1999), p. 27.

2. ‘Superspecificity’ implies that future technology is rendered with the same nonchalant, and brand-oriented, terminology as we might apply to the contemporary world when we talk of, for instance, a ‘hoover’ rather than a ‘vacuum cleaner’ or an ‘iPod’ rather than a ‘portable MP3-playing device’. Gibson traced his influence in this respect to hardboiled detective fiction: ‘[Dashiell] Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description. SF authors tend to use generics – “Then he got into his space suit” – a refusal to specify that is almost an unspoken tradition in SF’. Larry McCaffery, ‘An Interview with William Gibson’, in McCaffery, ed., Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke UP, 1991), p. 269.

3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847; London: Penguin, 1966); Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1837-38; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999).

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).