Things They Wrote With: The Material Making of Modern Fiction

Things They Wrote With: The Material Making of Modern Fiction

Joseph Conte
Enduring Words: Literary Narrative in a Changing Media Ecology.
Michael Wutz
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009

In his new book, Michael Wutz examines how the work of four canonical novelists - Norris, Lowry, Doctorow, and Powers - register the revolutions in 20th century media technology. Such an analysis, reviewer Joseph Conte suggests, is an important extension of Kittlerian media theory to the field of American literature.

“read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors” - William Gaddis, J R

In one of the essays that were to comprise Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, “From the prehistory of novelistic discourse,” Bakhtin confronts us with the fact that the author is never to be found in the novel’s language but rather resides at the nexus of varying levels of novelistic discourse. Authentically dialogic novels would be representative of the diverse sorts of language present in their day. He states:

To a greater or lesser extent, every novel is a dialogized system made up of the images of ‘languages,’ styles, and consciousnesses that are concrete and inseparable from language. Language in the novel not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation. Novelistic discourse is always criticizing itself.

A writer such as Dostoevsky feels compelled to represent the “folk language” of an illiterate class of Petersburgians with as much fidelity as he would the diplomatic correspondence of the French ambassador. In the “doubly-oriented discourse” of the novel, in which language not only represents but is itself represented, both the argot of the streets and the formal epistolary style are differing channels of communication that speak to class, literacy and ideology.

While the letter was still the preeminent form of communication over distance in the nineteenth century - Dostoevsky’s correspondence from 1868 until his death in 1881 runs over a thousand pages - the evolution of other forms of communications media including the telegraph, telephone, film, television, and electronic mail over the course of the twentieth century suggests that a properly dialogic novelist would have several more “images of ‘languages,’ styles, and consciousnesses” to represent in novelistic discourse. If it’s unimaginable for a Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Dickens not to represent the posting of letters, and indeed have them serve as a strategy for the forward progress of the narrative, it would be even weirder for a novel published in the latter half of the twentieth century not to represent communication by telephone or, inevitably, e-mail. What is disturbing to the Bakhtinian model, however, is that while conversations or a manuscript letter are easily assimilable into the discourse of the literary (print) novel, the technological interventions in communications media (electronic, digital) present a challenge to the novel in its dual desire to represent its world with fidelity and to represent the ‘languages’ of that world.

As a case in point, consider William Gaddis’s J R (1975), a novel that in the process of eviscerating the deliberately convoluted and insubstantial practices of American speculative capitalism, emphasizes the fact that stock trading, legal maneuvering, and a great deal of banal conversation has migrated to the telephone. Much too long to quote in its entirety, a single call placed from the school payphone by the novel’s eleven-year-old prodigy, J. R. Vansant, relates fragmentarily his ambition to strip the assets of a certain Canadian mining company:

- Hullo? Let me talk to Mister Piscator please, this…yeah this is J…Yeah this is him, I sound like I’m where…? Tell him that yes tell him that’s why I’m in a hurry because I…hello? Nonny? look, I just talked to this broker Mister Wiles about this whole Ace and Alberta…what? No didn’t she just tell you…? No well some of these overseas connections are real good but…no I can hear you fine, look I called you to…No well that’s what I called about, I just heard the whole thing went…Okay but where does that leave me? I mean if I was the biggest holder they had in both…what? I already told you because it was real cheap, now so where does this…possible what…? But what good are leases on mineral exploration rights if I…okay but what good are tax write-offs for mineral exploration if like what am I supposed to do, go out there with a hat and shovel looking…not a hatful of no I said a shovel and go looking for these here virgin…what? No I mean these minerals what’s the difference of that and you said probably all Alberta and Western has left is this bunch of rights of way and leases to…No I know I can’t so look, when you find it all out you can…no now can you hear me?

And so on, more or less in “real time,” for a few more pages as if the reader were impatiently eavesdropping on the conversation from outside the phone booth while waiting to make his own call. In one respect, by representing the immature and uneducated locutions of J. R. with minute fidelity, Gaddis adheres to Bakhtin’s dictum that the novel should treat language, style, and consciousness as its object. However, this passage is not a conventional “dialogue,” but an ellipsis-ridden, single-sided conversation. And this is where the intervention of the communications technology of the telephone affects and disturbs novelistic discourse. It is not solely the entropic disruption of a “bad connection,” or noise in the circuit (J. R. conceals his preadolescent voice by covering the mouthpiece of the telephone with a handkerchief), but the misapprehension that arises between the disembodied voices of two speakers who no longer benefit from a face-to-face encounter. Gaddis elects to represent a fractured, one-sided conversation in the novel because the “speaker” (J. R. in this case) would be audible to one who was humanly present; but the “receiver” (Mister Piscator in this case) would only be audible if the reader could likewise press the telephone’s handset to his ear. Gaddis registers the intervention in novelistic discourse - and the monstrous facilitation in crime - of the telephone (also prevalent in film noir), yet he retains the novel’s traditional adherence to a single point-of-view: the reader can’t be, as it were, at both ends of the telephone line at once.

Michael Wutz has previously been the co-translator, with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, of Friedrich Kittler’s brilliant study, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999), that demonstrates how the monopoly of the printed word as an information storage and communications medium was shattered by the invention of new media technology such as phonography, photography, and cinematography that no longer required the alphabetic sign to transmit and store messages. Wutz has also been the co-editor, with Joseph Tabbi, of Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology (1997) that through various hands, including Kittler’s, describes how emergent technology, including typography, cinematography, and hypertext, has affected literary narrative from Thomas Mann to William Gibson. In Enduring Words, Wutz presents his first full-length and masterfully articulated study of these Kittlerian themes in the modern Anglo-American novel, in his own words, “the position of literary narrative in a postprint world” and “the media-technological re-formation of the human subject (its sense, its body, and its mind) as it is represented in the senescent medium of literature.” While Kittler himself has written only infrequently on literary fiction (including an essay on Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in Reading Matters), his theorization of the effects of new media, beginning with the advent of photography in the 1840s, has had a tremendous influence on how the novel, arguably the apex of a five-hundred year old print technology with its “users” well trained in its administration, has been produced and received.

Here Wutz takes up the baton to direct a rather impressive rendition of Kittlerian media analysis in the works of Frank Norris, Malcolm Lowry, and E. L. Doctorow, on whom he devotes two chapters apiece, and a final epilogue in part concentrated on Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2. If Norris, Lowry, and Doctorow do not immediately strike one as the most progressive writers of their generations with respect to the introduction of technological themes and an appreciation for popular media, it’s to Wutz’s credit that he makes a strong case for the perturbation of literary fiction within the twentieth century’s emerging media ecology with extended readings of canonical authors. One might have expected John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, with its obeisance to film and radio as formal and stylistic conceits; or, certainly, much science fiction from Jules Verne to William Gibson as more obvious exemplary cases. Wutz reminds us that the monopoly of alphabetic inscription enjoyed by print fiction is gradually broken up, like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, by Edison’s phonograph, the piano roll (whose automated performance is decried in Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape [2002]), the Lumière brothers’ cinématographe, television, and finally the binary code of the computer. Ultimately, the “Gutenberg Galaxy and the Edisonian Universe are on the threshold of being absorbed, in Hegelian fashion, into a Turing World” in which the analog forms of the alphanumeric, video, and audio streams are all subsumed into digital encoding. Wutz descries, however, a qualified advantage in the “cascading feedback loop that charts the novel’s shifting position within these shifting media constellations,” at least in part because the novel has always abstracted a “virtual reality” (and which it has trained its readers to accept without querulousness) that would eventually be fulfilled by the new media. By convincing us of the feedback loop effects of new media technology in the literary fictions of Norris, Lowry, and Doctorow, who are not outliers but rather representative figures of realism, modernism, and historiographic postmodernism respectively, Wutz makes a strong argument for an irrevocable shift in all literary narrative.

It’s now possible to examine a large cache of typescripts and notes for Don DeLillo’s novels at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. As a writer still committed to the process of composition on an electric typewriter, DeLillo observed that the “discarded pages mark the physical dimensions of a writer’s labor - you know, how many shots it took to get a certain paragraph right. Or the awesome accumulation, the gross tonnage of first draft pages.” One cannot imagine that such physical evidence of drafting and revising will subsequently be evident or recuperable for writers whose every word is no more than data entered in the hexadecimal codes of a software program. Kittler remarks, in fact, that “no human being writes anymore…. Today, human writing runs through inscriptions burnt into silicon by electronic lithography…. The last historic act of writing may thus have been in the late seventies when a team of Intel engineers [plotted] the hardware architecture of their first integrated microprocessor.” Dialing back as far as Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899), Wutz shows how profoundly disturbing was the introduction of the typewriter to “Norris’s idea of authorial agency, registering as it does the discursive shift from a culture of handwriting to that of typewriting.” Whereas the pen-bearing hand co-locates the author’s sight and point of inscription (as well as representing the distinctive holographic styl[us] of the writer), the typewriter mechanically disarticulates the hand that writes from the place on the page on which the character is imprinted. Despite Norris’s recommendation of the virtues of the typewriter (especially evident if you try to decipher Norris’s crabbed and heavily revised manuscripts), he becomes fixated in his novels on manual manglings that suggest a loss of masculine power and indeed the ability to provide a living as a writer. Wutz rather brilliantly meshes media and psychoanalytic theory here.

While Malcolm Lowry romanticized handwriting as the evident repository of individual genius at the expense of the typewriter “that makes everyone look the same,” he was nevertheless enamored of the cinema. Joining Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner, Lowry turned later in his career to screenwriting, intending to provide a treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night for the screen. After the completion of his masterpiece, Under the Volcano (1947), Lowry came increasingly under the spell of the cinematic gaze; as Wutz tells us, he was a “lifelong film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything cinematic.” It was inevitable that cinematic techniques and references would thus intrude into his prose fiction, but whereas a writer such as Dos Passos appears to have productively integrated the aesthetics of literary prose and cinematic effects, the heady quaff of film seems to have debilitated Lowry’s later writings. Wutz argues that the superior mimetic form of film “may help explain why Lowry suffered from a prolonged writer’s block and why all of his longer post-Volcano texts…remained unfinished: he was unable to reconcile the conflicting impulses of what is, in effect, a media schizophrenia with one another.”

Doctorow, we’re told, was much more eager to adopt the electric typewriter, and by the mid-1980s, when he was composing Billy Bathgate (1989), adopted the personal computer as his primary writing machine because it enabled his writing to better keep pace with his thoughts. In a compelling chapter on narrative waste in Doctorow, Wutz points to the role that serious literary fiction can play in distinguishing between the surfeit of information in a technologized and bureaucratized culture and the knowledge that resists integration into binary digits. In this Wutz essentially follows an argument made by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: that science and technology are forms of connaissance, especially the competence to marshal information; whereas knowledge, savoir, is a qualitative assessment not only of efficiency but of justice and beauty as well. For Lyotard, “narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge.” As an historiographic novelist, Doctorow adopts the pose of the ragpicker or chiffonnier who sifts through the social and historical rubbish in search of that which still has value, even though it’s been discarded by a bourgeois capitalist society characterized by conspicuous consumption and class division. Though he is not a Luddite repulsed by technological innovation, Doctorow is a novelist who “rather than celebrating information for the sake of information…could be said to be supra-informational, in that [he] incorporate[s] numerous data streams to analyze the anesthetizing effects of contemporary media culture.”

By the time we arrive at Wutz’s discussion of Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, where the preeminence of computation and digital media are directly confronted by a print-bound author retaining traditional literary preferences, we are sufficiently resigned to the fact that the shifting media ecology has demoted the novel to an ancillary position in information culture. As is well known from his writings, Powers was employed after graduation from college as a computer programmer, writing code, and data processor - activities that feature notably in his breakthrough novel, The Gold Bug Variations (1991), as well as in semi-autobiographical Galatea 2.2 (1995) that revisits the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences at the University of Illinois. Wutz convincingly elicits from the novel the fact that the artificial intelligence, “Helen,” who is fed (inputted?) a steady diet of literary classics, possesses the connaissance of the literary canon sufficient to answer the most abstruse examination question (the Turing test), but as disembodied circuitry, she can never experience the savoir of the embodied experience that those works describe. Wutz points out that, despite his competence in computing and considerable interests in science and technology, Powers has never abandoned the print novel for hypertext or other forms of online publishing. He asks whether we would recognize cognition - or the literary reflection of cognition - were it not embodied in the object of the book. Helen’s creator believes that the “archive is permanent” and books do “for the species what associative memory fails to do for the individual.” And yet, as the media ecology changes, let us hope that the novel likewise changes, so that it does not end up like the spool of ticker tape in a museum of science and technology.