LITERARY CRITICISM: Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

SuperSadTrueLove_AF

From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star War, apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might me about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities andcontradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.

Donna Haraway
A Manifesto for Cyborgs

Upon reading Super Sad True Love Story, I was reminded of a project I completed a few years ago concerning posthumanism and artificial intelligence, through an analysis of Galatea 2.2, by Jonathan Franzen. In this study, I examined the relationship between technology and humanity; unveiling a long standing debate between the concepts of the “brain” and the “mind.” Although often used interchangeably, these terms have distinctive differences in relation to humanity. When referring to the “brain,” one is referring to an information processing model, or database. In this way, the “brain” resembles a computer. When using the word “mind,” one is referring to the physical process of thought. The “mind” concept supports educational theorists who suggest that learning should be kinesthetic, as well as visual and auditory. In other words, the mind and body connect to produce valuable thought. In Franzen’s novel, not unlike Shteyngart’s, a hyper technological world leads to a question of being. Both authors question the role of technology in the current and future society:

“The longer I lurked, the sadder [I] became. People who used the web turn strange…in public panels, they disguised their sexes, their ages, their names. They logged on the electronic fray, adopting every violent persona but their own… [the technological world] was… more efficiently lonely that the one it replaced”

Richard Powers 9
Galatea 2.2

“My apparat isn’t connecting. I can’t connect”

Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story

Although both authors present a rather grim attitude toward a hyper technological society, I would like to question whether the concepts of mind/brain and technology/humanity are connections rather than binaries within the phenomenon of being. In Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny Abramov is a character fraught with competing theories of life and immortality, which implores the question, “What’s it all for?”

The “isms” and Being

As previously mentioned, Shteyngart brings posthumanism into question through his dealings with technology. Upon completing my original study with Galatea 2.2, I considered my understanding of the subject quite thorough. However, I was not well versed in critical theory at that time, so I neglected to see the larger category that “posthumanism” fell under. The term “postmodernism was coined in 1979 by Jean-Francois Lyotard due to defiance of cultural and literary conventions (Rivkin, 258). Essentially, the theory places value on difference and identity, as well as power. Each of these values is affected by technological development; therefore, posthumanism could be considered a subcategory of postmodernism. Judith Halberstam conquers the labelling of these theoretical terms, stating, “the proliferation of academic ‘post-isms” marks simultaneously the necessary or regrettable failure to imagine what’s next and the recognition that it must always appear as the ‘the as yet un-nameable which is pro.” It seems interesting that in these theories, there is a focus on the development in humanity over time, yet a reluctance to move forward stated in the very names of said theories.
Speaking of “isms” and what they stand for, theories in posthumanism have proven tricky, because the term has at least five definitions, one of which is “transhumanism.” Through transhumanism, it is understood that humans are not and should not be limited by biological constraints. These “constraints” include limited thoughts, emotions, recreations and lifespan. According to Dr. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, transhumanism suggests a “vision of how we might concretely use technology and other means to change what we are- not to replace ourselves with something else, but to realize our potential to become something more than we currently are” (Bostrom). Judith Halberstam asserts that posthumanism is “the overlap between the now and then, the here and the always: the annunciation of post humanity is always both premature and old news” (Halberstam, 3).
Lenny Abramov, although amidst the struggle between the now and then, certainly places value in humanity and progression, because he is well read and has goals to better the lives of himself and others. He sees beauty in every day people: “These are complex personalities, their cerebral cortexes shimmering with floating worlds, universes that would have floored our sheep-herding, fig-eating analog ancestors” (Shteyngart, 4). Lenny places value in the mind, much like Rick, the protagonist in Galatea 2.2. Both men are humanists, living in a posthuman society. They are closely involved with literature (Lenny worships his books and writes in a diary, and Rick is a successful novelist) but are faced with technological advancements that threaten their ideals (Lenny’s society is absolutely image centered and functions through technological dependence, and Rick develops a relationship with “Helen,” a frighteningly humanistic cyborg.) They seem to present a struggle between “mind” and “brain” because they understand their entrapment in a changing culture.

New Language Barriers

The discourse is depressing and certainly not college-level.

In Shteyngart’s novel, the younger generation struggles to connect on a basic human level. Eunice Park, a young woman, responds to an older Lenny, “LPT…TIMATOV. ROFLAARP. PRGV. Totally PRGV” (Shteyngart, 22). This sentence contains one trivial word, and Lenny has no idea what Eunice is talking about. Beyond the generational gap, Eunice represents the fall of the human language in a hyper-virtual society. Eunice might be all flesh and bone, but her mind is proven to function as a computer, by communicating with what looks like Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). In a later diary entry, Lenny reflects on the future of language: “I relished hearing language actually spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data. How long would it be before these kids retreated into the dense clickety clack apparat world of their absorbed mothers and missing fathers?” (53). With this observation comes the realization that language is in danger of losing aesthetic and communicative quality. Furthermore, Eunice and her generation are proven dysfunctional when the apparats stop working, resembling something of a computer crash. The livelihood of these characters was crushed by a technological break, which begs the question: Is our concept of being enhanced or reduced by our reliance on technology for survival?  This technological dependence certainly explains why many citizens fear for the future.

Post-modernist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche detects a fear in “change [and] transitoriness…[we have] soul[s] full of mistrust and evil experiences” (Der Derian, 36). However, I wouldn’t suggest that Shteyngart, Powers, or Nietzsche are Luddites by any means. Rather, I see how they may raise a powerful discourse on society’s use of technology. Transhumanism supports what I would refer to as the “Wolverine” solution; where the body is partially replaced by machine- but without the connection between mind, brain and body; what are we really preserving? Author Paul Virilio states, “we have to fight it [technology] without denying it” which I interpret as “we have to fight against the problems that technology presents in order to progress with its advancements in a humanized context (69). When Lenny unsuspectingly finds a dead man in the lobby of his apartment building and is appalled by the employee’s reaction. (80):

“There’s a dead person in my lobby,” I said to them, “In a fucking wheelchair. You just left it there, Some respect guys?
Their faces were negligible, compromised vaguely Hispanish. “You next of kin?” one said, nodding at my vicinity.
“Does it matter?”
“He’s not going anywhere sir.”
“It’s disgusting.”
“It’s just death.”
“Happens to everybody, Paco,” the other added.

James Der Derian, author of Virtuous War (originally published in 2001) predicted a similar instance. Due to virtual simulations,“the reality of death had become twice removed” (9). The employees are correct- death does happen to everyone. However, there is a danger in being so void of emotion that we start to see a lack of celebration for that person’s life.

Survival- The Basic Human Instinct?

All names of good and evil are images; they do not speak out, they only hint. He is a fool who seeks knowledge from them… It is power, this new virtue; it is a ruling idea; and around it a subtle soul; a golden sun, and around it is the serpent of knowledge

Friedrich Nietzsche
Of Bestowing Virtue

Friedrich Nietzsche has been said to criticize Darwin for developing a theory of evolution. However, German philosopher Stefan Lorenz Sorgner was able to find a counter-argument. He upholds that Nietzsche valued Darwin and a theory of evolution, but criticized Darwin for assuming that the “fundamental goal of human beings is their struggle for survival. Instead, Nietzsche suggested a much more political answer- that the basic human instinct was to gain power (Sorgner, 2). Lenny Abramov is an average man; admittedly unnoticeable, yet he desires immortality. “A week ago, I did not exist. A week ago, at a restaurant in Turin, I approached a potential client…looked right past me, looked back down…looked back up, looked right past me again” (Shteyngart, 5). Lenny’s life is nothing extraordinary in comparison to other characters in the novel (his boss, for example). He can’t possibly want to preserve the life he is already living, he must be seeking something deeper.
Whether his desire is to gain power over Eunice, the relationship his parents, or his boss; Lenny most importantly seeks to gain power over his own life. In an entry titled “The Fallacy of Merely Existing” he writes a list of goals that will lead him to immortality. The title seems to prove a search for something beyond survival and the goals concern his relationships with others and a celebration of humanistic qualities (“Love Eunice”, “Care for Your Friends”, “Be Nice to Parents”, “Celebrate What You Have”) (50-51). He tends to seek a hegemonic position above Eunice, a “superhero complex” if you will; “I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her” (21). Lenny also struggles with his connections to his books, because they tamper with his status. His technology-versed friends tease him, predicting “All those doorstops are going to drag down your PERSONALITY rankings. Where do you even find those things?” (90). Because of these books, Lenny has trouble being taken seriously. His goals seem to be an attempt to connect his humanistic values with the technological world in order to gain power on his own terms. He seeks a raison d’etre or “reason to be-” in search of a way to expand the conception of the human being.

Meanwhile, Eunice is caught in the younger generation; one which cannot avoid technological advancement. Her use of technology makes Virilio’s prediction true, that “the information sphere, will impose itself on the geosphere. We will live in a reduced world” (Der Derian, 69). Eunice’s time is consumed through her connection to her apparat rather than her connection to other people. Her best friend is virtual, the reader never has proof that the girls ever ever meet again in person. Both young women refer to face to face communication as “verballing” when really that word refers to damaging implications of a crime suspect. The correct phrasing for Eunice and Jenny’s purposes is “I need someone to verbally converse with” Their language skills are deteriorated because virtual communication has replaced the authentic.

 

Cybermen: Doctor Who

A younger generation of robots that have “deleted” their emotion.

Instead of an enhanced life, Shteyngart highlights the younger generation’s inability to communicate and show emotion; both of which are basic human functions.What is more upsetting is the lack of education Eunice and her generation withhold. As this study previously mentions, Shteyngart is making a statement about the use of technology, rather than the existence and progression of it. Where Lenny uses his apparat mostly for work purposes, Eunice uses hers for online shopping. Their conversations with each other are meaningless. Eunice responds to Lenny in short snippets, or acronyms such as “JBF” (just butt-fucking), which speaks to the crude image centered world of the younger generation (22). In her communications with Jenny aka “GRILLBITCH,” we can see Shteyngart’s predictions of educational decline. Eunice writes, “He’ll [Lenny] tell me all these things I never even learned at Elderbird, like that New York used to be owned by the Dutch (what were they even doing in America?)” (114). Again, their language skills are reduced, most likely due to the focus on image over text. Eunice is constantly floored by Lenny’s “strange” reading habits:nice advises her sister to resist seeking power; “I don’t want you getting Political. Let’s just try to enjoy our lives” (32). Her warped sense of feminist values aside, Eunice is among the generation affected by what Virilio refers to as “technical integrism” (Der Derian, 68). He sees the advancement of technology in three revolutions that will lead to a technological colonization of the mind. In this way, he suggests this “colonization” would form “a technocult, a kind of cybercult…where we are tempted, even trained to ignore new dangers” (68-69). Eunice is caught in this cult, unable to function without her apparat. She uses the device as a crutch, when she lacks the ability to communicate.

What kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book…And I don’t mean scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics with that Chatterhouse of Parma I mean seriously READING. He had this ruler out and was moving it up and down the page very slowly and just like whispered little things to himself, like trying to understand every little part of it. I was going to teen my sister but I was so embarrassed I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened.

As I read this section through again, not only do I fear a sense of foreignness toward books, but again the deterioration of language. Eunice’s message is a stream of consciousness, and as a college graduate, she uses “like” in the written form-but that’s just a side note, a personal irritant. In this entry, Lenny is reading War and Peace which has held a negative connotation in younger generations because of its length, but is held in high respect academically. However, the fact that Eunice refers to Leo Tolstoy as “that Russian guy” is demeaning and effectively offensive. (I feel the urge to dig out my copy of War and Peace and read it again.)

What’s it all For?

Eunice and her generation are arguably “surviving,” but are they living? Are they seeking a way of being that transcends the ability of the average human? Furthermore, are these people truly happy? The phrase “Knowledge is Power” is attributed to Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes and is well advertised in today’s school systems. The term “power” can become subjective; it can be as extensive as ruling an empire or as simple as making your own decisions; but either way, it is a natural human instinct to seek one form or another. The most “fit” for power are the individual who truly survive. This is the stance Nietzsche takes on evolution. He saw human beings as a “link between animals and overhumans” (2). Some may take this statement as Nietzsche’s support of artificial intelligence models or cyborgs, but his interpretation of “overhuman” is one with the highest level of thinking- his parallel to Darwin’s “fittest.” Stefan Sorgner writes:

In both cases, the goal is to move from natural selection towards a type of human selection, even though the expression “human selection” sounds strange – particularly, perhaps, for many contemporary Germans. Yet, I do not think that human selection must be a morally dubious procedure. If the selection is a liberal one, i.e. a type of selection undertaken within a liberal and democratic society, many problematic aspects vanish.

Is this whom Nietzsche had in mind for survival?

Is this whom Nietzsche had in mind for survival?

Educated, or “active” citizens, as Nietzsche labels these human selections, are the powerful citizens, and “it is the powerful who made the names of things into law, and among the powerful it is the greatest artists in abstraction who create the categories” (Rivkin, 267). These people are revolutionary because of their “brain” and their “mind.” Because they are educated and humanistic, technology cannot and should not replace the evolution they create. Technology is only progressive due to the efforts of those who study it- if we replace those minds with technology, how would we be able to progress further than our comfortable expectations?
It seems my argument is a bit hypocritical because the concept of artificial intelligence and hyper-technology is uncomfortable, but Nietzsche insists this discomfort is natural. In A Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche determines that “happiness can be guaranteed only by being; change and happiness exclude one another. The highest desire therefore contemplates unity with what has being. This is the formula for: the road to the highest happiness (Rivkin, 270). The characters in Super Sad True Love Story have not reached the “highest form of happiness” because change is perpetual. Have I reached a dead end? Possibly. However, I move to suggest that in order survive in Nietzschean terms, humans must maintain the ability to question and find discomfort in change. This requires future generations to “fight technology without denying it.” Only then, can we become more than we currently are.

Sources:

Der Derian, James. Virtuous War. 2nd ed. New York: Westview, 2009. Print.
Nietzsche, Freidrich. “A Will to Power.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. By Julie Rivkin and Michael
Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 265-70. Print.
Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Sorgner, Stefan. “Beyond Humanism: Reflections on Trans- and Posthumanism.” Journal of Evolution
and Technology 21.2 (2010): 1-19. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.

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