Writing has proliferated since the advent of social media. Everyone is at it. What is the status of such writing, asks Calum Barnes, how do ‘writers’ view such writing and what we are doing when we are writing it?
In a series of boosterist manifestos in the early 90s, the one-time Grateful Dead lyricist turned internet evangelist John Perry Barlow set out his vision of cyberspace as the new frontier, one that humanity was on the brink of crossing:
Over the last 50 years, the people of the developed world have begun to cross into a landscape unlike any which humanity has experienced before. It is a region without physical shape or form. It exists, like a standing wave, in the vast web of our electronic communication systems.
This utterly new landscape brimming with utopian promise that Barlow and his Silicon Valley acolytes were conjuring into being formed a new mythology of the American frontier, and one as drenched in blood as its predecessor. Barlow’s most famous contribution to this mythology was his ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ with its grandiloquent opening:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
This is a peculiar formulation given that cyberspace was very much a product of the military-industrial complex and, as Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism showed, the tech start-ups that survived the bursting of the dotcom bubble were surprisingly comfortable with accepting lucrative government contracts and undermining individual sovereignty.
The border between cyberspace and meatspace, what Barlow called our inferior material world, has long disappeared but for much of the liberal commentariat, this disappearance only began to matter after the electoral ruptures of 2016, fulminating against Russian funded troll farms or the insidious influence of 4chan. As Donald Trump set to work erecting his wall on the Mexican border, it was clear that the border between cyberspace and meatspace was one that needed to be reinstated post-haste.
The august art of literary fiction has always been a little reticent to tread these virgin lands. Given the accelerated rise and fall of social media platforms compared to the pace of novel writing, it is easy to see why authors might be reluctant to spend so much time dedicated to ephemeral trends. Pity the author of the Myspace novel whose work is now only read on an undergraduate literature course entitled ‘Only Connect! The Novel and Social Media.’ On the other hand, the dearth of novels to engage with the online world is curious. After all, as Richard Seymour argues in The Twittering Machine, social media is above all a writing machine, compelling us to write more than ever before. With a long history of pastiching the writing forms of the day- from diaries and letters and the litany of insular metafictions about writers chronicling their struggles to write, we have largely been saved from the anxious deliberations that go behind composing a tweet.
Every couple of years, though, the literary supplements breathlessly herald the latest novel that has, they insist, finally overcome the intractable difficulties of representing our new digital realities in all their ontological slipperiness. Recent notable examples have included Tao Lin’s Taipei and Jenny Offill’s Weather. The publication earlier this year of both Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, each with their very Online protagonists, has once again reignited the discourse concerning the ‘internet novel’, as its been dubbed this round.
Both are set in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election. The unnamed narrator, a writer, of Fake Account sets the apocalyptic mood:
Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon, if not by exponential environmental catastrophe then by some combination of nuclear war, the American two-party system, patriarchy, white supremacy gentrification, globalization, data breaches, and social media.
This clatter of clauses and subclauses evoke that ambient dread without an object, the suffocating onslaught of takes that constantly fill up our timelines. Similarly the, also unnamed, narrator of Lockwood’s novel notes that ‘every day we were seeing new evidence that suggested it was the portal that had allow the dictator to rise to power.’ These are more offhand reflections but provide the context through which to read these contrasting approaches to representing the online world.
As Richard Seymour observes, in our online lives ‘we are being written, and as we write, we are being written,’ but the question we have to ask is ‘what sort of future are we writing ourselves into?’ Lockwood’s narrator spends most of her life online and has become an online microcelebrity for posting ‘Can a dog be twins?’ but also wonders the same:
Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.
Not only does this skirt the existential void at the heart of social media activity – who is writing who – it foregrounds the form of language itself. No One very much continues in the vein of recent ‘internet novels’: a cumulative collage of aphoristic fragments, their cod-profundity accentuated by the blank spaces their swaddled in. What sets Lockwood’s novel apart, though, is how it absorbs the idioms and argot of Twitterspeak, even making reference to real viral moments. Drifting through this effervescent fugue has the oneiric quality of the endless scroll: somehow both compulsive and languid, gliding without agency through a fantasia of sensory overload that evanesces as soon as you put it down.
The aspiring writer of Fake Accounts takes a dim view of such a form. ‘If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter,’ she acidly remarks. In fact, the slyly self-conscious narrator even fashions a whole section of her novel in the fragmentary method de rigueur, delighting that ‘what’s amazing about this structure is that you dump any material you have in here and leave it up to the reader to connect it to the rest of the work.’ This dismissal comes over as a direct rebuke to the burnished koans of Jenny Offil’s recent novels, Oyler’s day job as a critic spilling over into her fiction.
In many ways this faultline in representational strategies resembles the aesthetic debates surrounding modernist literature at the beginning of the twentieth century. ‘On or around December 1910, human character changed,’ Virginia Woolf famously observed. Are we witnessing a similar evolution in human character? This is the anxiety that animates critical discussions surrounding the internet novel. Both narrators make reference to Woolf’s writing, and both construct their characters in opposing ways.
In The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Gyorgy Lukacs aired his reservations about the literary aesthetics of modernist literature. For him, the retreat into interiority could only represent a distortion of the world and a refusal to confront the objective conditions. ‘Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments; he is as inexplicable to others as to himself.’ As well as a fitting description of No One is Talking About This, it is a criticism predicated on the belief in a distinction between inner and outer reality, one that is now even more irrevocably blurred. Lukacs’ attachment to Balzacian realism is a means to resist the fragmenting forces of capital, which he so astutely diagnosed in History and Class Consciousness, whereas Lockwood is more keen to reflect it and revel in its formal possibilities, reconfiguring Woolfian reverie with the matter of memes.
The narrator of Fake Accounts is more keen to resist the fragmenting tendencies Lukacs warns of. Whilst pastiching the fragmentary style she observes, ‘another justification for this structure is that it mimics the nature of modern life, which is “fragmented.” But fragmentation is the one of the worst aspects of modern life.’ She concludes ‘our experience of time is fragmented, but unfortunately time itself is not.’ Lukacs would approve of this commitment to temporal linearity but Oyler’s first person narrator with their serpentine, multi-clausal sentences shot through with an acute self-awareness are reminiscent of the late modernist prose of Thomas Bernhard, dissecting contemporary social mores with a lacerating wit but hobbled by an exasperated self-consciousness that often gets trapped in the loops of its own thought. Oyler may shy away from the exuberant formal proclivities of Lockwood but she seeks not to defamiliarise – instead domesticating an aspect of our everyday reality that much literary fiction has chosen to avoid.
Lukacs bemoans the focalising of novels through the fractured subjectivities of their characters which, he claims, privileges an ‘ontological view.’ This ontological view is now diffuse in our world .He quotes the German poet Gottfriend Benn who insistss ‘there is no outer reality, there is only human consciousness, constantly building, modifying, rebuilding new worlds out of its own creativity.’ Perhaps Lukacs was right to fear this outcome, for what does this describe but the atomised plastic realities of contemporary conspiracy theory and QAnon? This is truth Oyler is all too aware of. Fake Accounts opens with the narrator’s discovery that her boyfriend secretly runs an Instagram account dedicated to peddling conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job and the Rothschilds secretly running the world. Our selves are irreparably fractured across these platforms reducing reality to an interiorised macrocosm, our narratives fashioned to fit our fantasies. Oyler’s writer playfully exploits this in her usage of Tinder, going on a succession of dates, inventing a personality for each based on a symbol of the zodiac. Existence is disguised by a series of arbitrary masks but there is no longer a real face underneath.
The fragility and vulnerability of offline life reveals this to the narrator of No One is Talking About This. The short life of her sister’s child, born with Proteus Syndrome, brings home the shortcomings of the online, ‘in the portal, where the entirety of human experience seemed to be represented, and never the shining difference of that face, those eyes, that hair.’ When she dies, technology, as it always has, offers hope in mourning: s“Can ghosts learn new technology?” her sister asked, thinking of what must come next, the endless conveyor of progress to which a whole human history’s worth of spirits must adapt.’ They have actually been learning for a long time. Drawing from the work of literary critic Laurence Rickels, the writer Tom McCarthy describes how parents would record their children on the new technology of phonographs that in the event of their death would become their tombs. ‘Bereavement becomes the core of technologics.’ Ghosts have always haunted our technologies and as our selves flicker between the ontological realms they open up, it should be no surprise that the quiver of the numinous within vibrates into the continuous mediatised universe that has always banished such ethereal concerns to the fringes of our culture.
‘What is it that we’re labouring on?’ Richard Seymour rhetorically asks of our time on social media. ‘The birth pangs of a new nation,’ is his orotund reply. If, as Benedict Anderson argued in his now classic book Imagined Communities, the novel and the newspaper were the forms that cemented the idea of the nation in the collective imagination, what is social media summoning? The novel may no longer be central to forging this new globalized, hyper-surveilled world but it can nevertheless track the warps and wefts of the social fabric but all it can register is its seemingly inexorable fraying. As the narrator of No One is Talking About This muses ‘The words shared reality stretched and stretched, flapped at the corners like a blue felt blanket, and failed to cover everyone’s feet at once, which all shrank from the same cold.’ The blanket needs to be rewoven before our feet are warmed by other means.