Writing Technologies

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Écrire – La Technologie: A View From France

Douglas Morrey

French writers, both literary and theoretical (and who, more than the French, have so thoroughly and consistently challenged this distinction between modes, styles or genres of writing?), have long been at the forefront of reflections on technology. However central the railroad and locomotive may have been to the American cultural and geographical imagination in the nineteenth century, for instance, few literary evocations of the railways have as much resonance as Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine (1890). Zola’s novel is at once thoroughly embedded in the world of steam railways as realist setting – the result of extensive and painstaking research in the milieu – and profoundly infused with the technological imaginary of the steam locomotive. And if the trains in La Bête humaine are metaphorical – as they are, through and through – they are symbolic at once of technological progress and the development of the new, mobile business and leisure classes, and, at the same time, of that which is most archaic and unsophisticated, of the inherited instinctual desires that drive humanity blindly, belligerently forward. The novel’s unforgettable closing image – in which a trainload of drunken soldiers on their way to war on the Prussian Front remain blithely ignorant of the fact that their locomotive is running out of control, the driver and fireman having wrestled each other from the machine in a pointless dispute – is a perfect condensation of the terrifying ambivalence of technology. When the image of a runaway train hurtling out of control was reprised recently in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (2005), it had lost none of its evocative power.

In the contemporary literary sphere, French writers are again in the vanguard of writing technologies, albeit writers who to some extent reject their national cultural inheritance and willingly align themselves with the more American genre of science fiction. Michel Houellebecq and Maurice G. Dantec, respectively one of the most successful and one of the most ambitious novelists working today, are exploring in writing some of the most pressing questions of our current, and future, relationships with technology. The most compelling question of Houellebecq’s fiction is how biotechnology might enable, or perhaps enforce, an abandonment or surpassing of individual subjectivity as we know it. The future visions of Atomized (Les Particules élémentaires, 1998) and The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île, 2005), with their cloned neo-humanities liberated from the drives for social, economic and, above all, sexual competition, exist somewhere between utopia and dystopia as they are classically conceived in science-fiction narrative and theory, exuding a kind of eerie – but not exactly sinister – calm that may ultimately question the very need or desire for narration, for representation, for writing. But how does the curiously flat tone of Houellebecq’s writing – complete with his deadpan sense of humour – relate to such technological considerations? And how does this seemingly featureless and impassive style – and, by extension, the much-maligned ‘blankness’ of a postmodern generation of writers, thinkers or actors – relate to the conceptions of post-war French theorists such as Roland Barthes, who identified a kind of ‘blank writing’ (‘écriture blanche’) or Maurice Blanchot who endlessly theorised the ‘worklessness’ or ‘unworking’ (‘désoeuvrement’) caused by the silence at the heart of literature?

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