The Contemporary Novel as a Reflection on Technology
The contemporary novel has been under much scrutiny, with authors such as Jonathan Franzen, William Gaddis, Don Delillo, and Richard Powers; who have struggled to combine the social and personal world. One way these authors have combined these two words is through researching the effects of technology on humanity. Richard Powers’ autobiographical novel, Galatea 2.2 approaches the distinction between humanist and post humanist ideas through an artificial intelligence creation. Don Delillo speaks to the effects of technology in the media with his novel, Mao II. Both contemporary novels devise a plot which explores the presence of technology in the age of information.
An essay written by Jonathan Franzen confronts the dilemmas that some contemporary novelists find with technology. “Why Bother?” (2002) is a reflection of where the “contemporary novel” is headed for the future. Franzen uses the work, Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. “The reader who happens on Desperate Characters today will be as struck by the foreignness… as by its familiarity” (Franzen, 58). There has been a cultural crisis within the past 25 years concerning the increase in television and “electronic fragmentation of public discourse” (Franzen, 58). Because the world is changing so rapidly, Franzen suggests the contemporary novelist can barely keep up. If Richard Powers had written his novel about instant textual communication 10 years ago, the “impossible” concept would already be a reality. Tools like instant messenger, texting, and social media websites would have lessened the book’s relevance.
The rapid changes in communication and technology in general have occurred simultaneous to the growth of post humanist ideas. Richard Powers writes about the relationship between human and machine in Galatea 2.2. There are questions of how to characterize both entities. Alan Turing, a mathematician and computer expert, developed a scientific process of distinguishing between human and mechanical intelligence: “Your job is to pose a question that can distinguish verbal performance from embodied reality. If you cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, your failure proves… that machines can think” (Hayles, 1). Specific questions to pose would come from Turing’s tool, called the “Turing Test.” When examining posthumanism, or the rethinking of what “humanity” is, one reserves the word “brain” rather than “mind” for intelligence purposes. This is because the human brain is seen as an “Information Processing Model [which] acquires, processes and stores information (Moreno, 57). This definition of the brain relates the human organ to a computer; therefore, the humanistic quality is taken away from the entity. A strong value of this posthuman view is displayed by Lentz, when he refers to the brain in Galatea 2.2, “The brain itself was just a glorified fudged up Turing machine” (Powers, 71). By referring to the Turing test, Lentz gives his view of the brain as entirely mechanic.
Humanists, on the other hand, regard the brain more complexly because they include the idea of consciousness. They believe the mind and the body are connected for a reason. A humanist comment referring to this: “The self is a process. The body is a way of knowing and marking the world, as well as a way of knowing and marking a self” (Hayles, 3). With this perspective, we can see the human brain is a thought-provoking tool as well as an information processor. Rick adds to this idea in Galatea 2.2 by explaining how to truly acquire knowledge. “Knowledge is physical, isn’t it? It’s not what your mother reads you. It’s the weight of her arms around you… the smell of the bookbinding paste. The crinkle of the stock as the pages turn… human knowledge is social. More than stimulus-response” (Powers, 148). This supports Rick’s humanist attitude, because he states how learning takes time and that there is a connection rather than simple input-output and organization.
In order to link the mind-brain dilemma to the effects of technology on humanity, one might conclude that machines have come to devalue human beings. “Hans Moravec proposed that human identity is essentially and informational pattern rather than embodied action” and that “machines can, for all practical purposes, become human beings” (Hayles, 1). These quotes explain how the Moravec test [which followed the Turing test] determines that machines become storage for human consciousness, which gives machines humanistic characteristics. Essentially, humanity is defined as whom or what holds the consciousness. Verbal performance is the machine and embodied reality is the human. If there is no difference seen between the information processor and the living soul, the machine is seen as an independent thinker. In Galatea 2.2, Helen, the artificial intelligence model, interrupted Rick, the human. “She” asked “Where did I come from?” Rick thought “I remembered by total stupefaction The lesson itself could not have triggered her question” (Powers, 229). Powers confronts artificial intelligence’s ability to think independently as opposed to the ability to give simple responses and repeat/store information. The machine somehow gained consciousness, or a “mind.”
Franzen sees the rapidly advancing technology as a sign of the human’s decreasing attention span. He mentions the lack of “linear reading” because “The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness” (Franzen, 63). Technology fits under this category because products are constantly being updated. For example, Rick reflects on how the internet affects humans, “The longer I lurked, the sadder the holiday 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” (Powers, 9). A technological advancement that was meant to connect humans around the world actually according to Rick, “was… more efficiently lonely that the one it replaced” (Powers, 9). As proved by this example, technology caused the social aspect of human to decrease and become more mechanical. This statement proves how machines can process information, but they cannot respond to reality such like humans do.
A perplexing thought is how technology has had the ability to cause a question of what it means to be human. Humanity has existed with many forms of technology since the beginning of the species’ existence, but there has been a shift from making human life easier to making it unnecessary. “This endeavor [exploring the post human] has involved rethinking “the human” and “humanity… reformations appear to anything but predictable” (Moraru, 1). Our world seems to be transforming to post humanist. “Cyberculture, cyberpunk, and certain aspects of postmodern literature, science fiction, pop culture, the ‘avant’ pop, and film have yielded some of the particular thought provoking occurrences in the newly emerged posthumanist ‘symptomatology’ (Moraru, 1). Galatea 2.2 shows the “symptoms.” For example, a relationship forms between Rick and Helen, to the extent of Helen telling Rick, “I miss you” (Powers, 206). Rather than informational processing and exchange, communication takes place between the machine and human.
Mao II also confronts the symptoms of posthumanism by examining its effect in the media. Bill Gray “overcomes” his humanity by not revealing his image to the crowd for so long. When he is pressured to do so, he struggles with that fact. “Don Delillo’s Mao II plays out the whole ‘iconology’ of the reclusive author. Yet this author explicitly resists being identified with his commercial image. He toils to protect his privacy, finally is identity, by refusing to publish and even write, produce” (Moraru, 5). Bill Gray is able to withhold his humanity in the end when his identity is stolen. “He… went through the man’s belongings, leaving the insignificant cash, the good shoes, the things in the bag, the bag itself, but feeling it was not a crime against the dead to take the man’s passport and other forms of identification” (Delillo, 217). Bill Gay is “dead” here, and becomes a blank identity machine to write books.
Post humanist “symptoms” seem to reflect in our contemporary music well. “Technologic” by Daft Punk strongly represents the influence of technology in our lives. A sample of the lyrics: “buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, mail – upgrade it.” This section is very repetitive and reflect the mechanic nature of our daily lives.
One might examine the the work of Katherine Hayles. She comments, “My dream is a version of the post human that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power… that recognizes finitude as a condition of the human being, and that understands human life is embedded in the material world of great complexity… we can depend on for our continued survival.” Hayles tries to stress that technology and the post human should be beneficial because it “embraces the possibilities” (Hayles, 5).
“Why Bother?” as stated above, discusses the problems contemporary novelists find in successfully writing about technology. Franzen discusses the difficulty in grasping readers’ attention as he recalls an interview for his novel, The Twenty-Seventh City: “The announcer… clearly hadn’t read past page two… I already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride… weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to a culture” (Franzen, 61). Even though the attention span of his audience is decreasing, Franzen tries to explain that he has more and more to say because of technological advancements. He states the social novel is facing struggle because “modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction… Because they command large audiences, TV and magazines can afford to father vast quantities of information quickly” (Franzen, 65-66). When he was on an airplane, he remembers being severely distracted from his book as the television played in the background. Even though he couldn’t hear the dialogue, the constant visual distraction “made me [Franzen] hunger for the unfocused emotion of a literature that isn’t trying to sell me anything (Franzen , 83). Andy Warhol commented in television as well: “When I got my first T.V. set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships with other people” (Karnicky, 347). These two example show how one aspect of the media has caused a distraction from both independent time and everyday social interaction.
In Mao II, Don Delillo explores technology and it’s effect through the media and modern art. The idea of “mechanical reproduction” is shown through Brita’s photography work as well as the Andy Warhol pieces throughout the novel. “Warhol and Delillo show is the ‘beauty and power’ at work in the intersection of the human and machine” (Karnicky, 354). This statement suggests that humans are able to both use and abuse their technological resources. One advantage of the silkscreens in Mao II is actually something Franzen would complain about. As mentioned previously, Franzen is frustrated with television because the visual takes away from independent concentration. However, in Mao II, the Warhol silk screens are constantly mentioned in a beneficial way. Scott thinks to himself “Had he ever really realized the deeper meaning of Mao before he saw these pictures” (DeLillo, 21). Later on, Karen examines a reproduction of a pencil drawing. “She studied the picture to see what was interesting about it… It was strange how a few lines with a pencil and there he is… It was by a famous painter whose name she could never remember… he was dead… or maybe just supposed to be dead” (Delillo, 62). Both of these examples show how Warhol’s mechanical reproduction and understanding in the characters.
One can gather from Jonathan Franzen and Don Delillo that the power of image has taken over the masses in a sense. The works of Richard Powers, Don Delillo and Andy Warhol can all be seen as art forms but also as separate entities. “One may… read the transition from Borders and Barnes and Noble to the Museum of Modern Art as either a simple parallel between types of art or a simple contrast between and old fashioned medium (books) and it’s postmodern successor (pop art)” (Cowart, 122). This can be seen as progression, such as the example above with increased understanding or, the loss of a great aesthetic, such as the novel. This statement leads to the disadvantages of a media and technology centered world on the contemporary novel and humanity overall.
Delillo explains how the written word is important for individual growth, even though the masses are more attracted to image. He said “A picture is like the masses… A book on the other hand, with linear advance of words and characters seems to be connected to an individual identity…Somehow pictures always lead to people and masses. Books belong to individuals” (Cowart, 117). If writing were to vanish, then we might as well be mass produced identical humans-effectively, machines. Brita represents that reading is an individual activity. When asked about her reading habits in relation to her profession, she responds ‘read at home, I read in hotels…I read in the waiting room” (DeLillo, 56). She then connects herself to the novel and novelist by photographing them. DeLillo also said “writing is a form or personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the markets around us” (Franzen, 95). The novelist achieves freedom for himself and for his readers, because they time out of being a part of the mass culture. In Mao II, this freedom seems to be decreasing due to the novelist’s decreasing influence over the public. “Because we’re giving way to terror, to tape recorders and cameras, to radios, to bombs stashed in radios, news of disaster is the only narrative people need” (DeLillo, 42). Bill Gray is saying that the novelist must bend to the influence of technology in order to be successful and relevant.
There is a strong movement among the contemporary novelists to remove the image from their works. Some of these writers include William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, who survived in their profession before the existence of a television. Jonathan Franzen reflects on the difficulty of following their example in a much different world; a world where “nothing moves a product like a personality” (Franzen, 85). Franzen “refused to teach, review for the Times, to write about writing, to go to parties…implied a lack of faith in fiction’s adequacy as communication and self expression” (Franzen, 86-87). Bill gray becomes a successful author through this isolation in Mao II. “Bill gained celebrity by doing nothing…but it [taking photos] would be the end of Bill as a myth, a force. Bill gets bigger as his distance from the scene deepens” (Franzen, 52). After going public, Bill never personally releases his novel.
Through the examination of Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 and Don DeLillo’s Mao II one can see that the contemporary novel is attributed strongly to technology and the media. Richard Powers discusses the humanistic versus post humanistic views of technological advancement, while Don DeLillo explores the technological aspects of the media and visual arts. Through both novels, these men explore the presence of technology in today’s world and the effects of such technology on humanity. While processes such as Andy Warhol’s mechanical reproduction have been shown to elicit reflection and understanding, the majority or technological “advancement” has produced negative results. Franzen, Powers and DeLillo have proven through their writing that because of technological influence, or society is in danger of losing human interaction, individuality and the death of the contemporary novel.
Last Modified: 1/18/2014
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