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Partie I. Hybridité et surexposition

Visualization, Scale, and the Emergence of Posthuman Narrative

Steve Tomasula

Résumés

Tout récit est une forme d’architecture, et l’architecture est toujours un reflet d’un moment historique; c’est encore plus vrai de l’architecture de l’information. Le roman humaniste, dans sa recherche d’autonomie, d’authenticité, et de représentation mimétique au travers du détail visuel, est fait pour dépeindre un monde à échelle humaine : le monde de l’interaction humaine où les règles sont celles de la physique newtonienne. Mais à une époque où la compréhension du monde s’effectue à une tout autre échelle, et où le concept d’individu au sens humaniste est éclipsé par une conscience du « posthumain », les métaphores visuelles du récit ne sont peut-être plus aussi essentielles à l’architecture du roman que les métaphores de l’infiniment grand et de l’infiniment petit, la notion d’émergence prenant le pas sur le rapport cause-conséquence, et la perception de motifs ou réseaux de signes récurrents l’emportant sur la notion d’un point de vue individuel. En faisant de l’émergence le principe fondamental de l’architecture des romans, l’on permet à un mode de narration tant créatif que critique de voir le jour, et d’exposer ce que c’est « d’être », à l’époque contemporaine et posthumaine, au même titre que le roman humaniste permettait d’exposer ce que c’était « d’être » à une époque humaniste fondée sur l’individu (époque où, du fait de cette adéquation, cette forme littéraire paraissait alors la forme « naturelle » de l’écriture).

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… but in an age of interlocking subdivisions and identical restaurants, in a world that each year generates 100,000,000 Miracle Slacks™, each of which had to be filled by “HELLO! MY NAME IS:_______________,” in a country of actuary tables, and service manager uniforms (filled out by Service Managers), hip-hop fashions (filled out by Hip Hoppers), personalized mail-order catalogs, look-a-like Sports Heroes, News Teams and other types—that is, to paint a portrait of our time, do the particulars of name matter?

What seems important is the ways in which millions of interactions made of individual movements, motives, desires and fears call into being patterns as surely as temperature, pressure and vapor form snowflakes, and snowflakes form storms, and storms create climates and other patterns—a Weltanschauung, as humans once called their cultural climate. Thus, if some Author wanted to model a world where a single worldwide chain of 5,000 department stores—call it Wall-to-Wall Mart—forms a massive hive that is continually monitoring its sales of furniture and pencils, and bobbles and refrigerators, and sandals and shirts, compiling 100 terabytes of information about inventory and Customers—the equivalent of more than five times the contents of the U.S. Library of Congress; a world where an outbreak of Avian Flu travels the globe as quickly as this information, or bad loans in One-Horse, Montana cause a town in Iceland to go bankrupt; a world where the people in these towns are no more wedded to the noses, teeth or chemistry that they were born with than they are to their bank accounts, and find themselves taking for granted the fact that their very DNA can be edited, patented, and rearranged like any other data, and—when they look for love—the people who have these new chemical personalities or noses or organs no longer seduce one another face-to-face but Facebook to Facebook; nor do they—when they go to war—face off in linear trenches but launch attacks with pilotless drones or a bricolage of the weapons that have emerged from the openness of society: cell phones to coordinate attacks; ATM machines and borderless currencies; a postmodern world of tomato-fish hybrids and cow-human embryos, in short, that gives individuals the power for mass destruction once reserved to nations, and nations, or nation-sized corporations, or all of us collective individuals, the power to make privacy go the way of the dodo bird, publishing our vacation plans, monitoring key-strokes at work, co-authoring public portraits by contributing data dots of when we rise, shop, drive, sleep, what we buy, eat, watch, where we go, how we talk, read, click, scroll, or who we meet, text, or email...

To depict such a world, do the techniques of 19th century oil painting suffice?

1Optical metaphors—language from the visual arts, or cinema—have always been an attractive way for authors to describe the depictions they make of words. So looking at a time when the techniques of oil painting did suffice might shed some light on what a novel of today might look like. I am referring here to the family resemblances between visual art and the realist novel centered on an autonomous self and dependent on the optical metaphor: Stendhal’s ‘mirror traveling down the road of life,’ and embodied as its main character. Indeed, witness the number of novels of this era that bear the name of the main character as title—Clarissa, Pamela, Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield—as well as the amount of sensory, especially visual, detail recorded by these protagonists:  anyone could tell, Dickens tells us, what station David Copperfield came from by the appearance of his toilet.

2In fact, if a DeFoe or Flaubert or Zola or Tolstoy or Norris novel were translated into paint it might have a number of family resemblances with Adolph Northern’s depiction of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia (See Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow, (1851) by Adolph Northern (aka Northen)

Fig. 1: Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow, (1851) by Adolph Northern (aka Northen)

3Presented as a window on the world, Northern places a single individual, his title character, at the center of our focus.  In this epistemology of the window, the central character is framed at the center of the picture plane, and accordingly, the supporting characters have been pushed to the margins, both visually, and ontologically. The composition directs our attention (if not our sympathy) towards Napoleon, not the nameless, faceless, anonymous and frozen corpses on the ground, whose marginalization makes of them less minor characters than props or supporting details in the tragedy of The Great Man. The other characters are ancillary details, that is, details like the buckles and bayonets, whose superabundance creates the illusion of realism in the service of eliciting emotion in us, its “readers.”

4But my main purpose for invoking this visual aid is to call attention to the scale of the work, for scale is what allows these elements of the painting—and of the realist novel—to do their work. Specifically, the vantage point is from the height, and therefore perspective, of a viewer who is also on horseback, that is, another officer, positioned at the distance two horses might stand apart in the field. More importantly, the scene frames the limits at which face-to-face conversations can be had, and individual features can be distinguished. The scene is at the scale at which humans interact as individuals, so let us call this the Human Scale with its title character and shared concerns of the realist novel: individual feeling or emotion, authenticity, mimetic representation through sensory detail, especially visual detail of individuals.

5We could imagine other points of view—e.g., fractured, Cubist mirrors, or streams of consciousness, for example—but for the purpose of imagining a novel of a time suggested by my introductory sketch, let’s instead imagine other scales. Let’s imagine Northern’s subject at a scale that allows us to see the entire army.

Fig. 2: Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 graph (Carte Figurative)

Fig. 2: Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 graph (Carte Figurative)

6Information designer Edward Tufte has called this illustration the greatest statistical graph ever drawn. Created in 1869 by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, this hybrid of map, graphs, and other visualized texts and data depicts the advance, and then withering effects of winter, starvation, and river crossings on Napoleon’s Grand Army of 1812. Beginning at the left on the Polish-Russian border near the Niemen River, the thick tan flow-line shows the size of the Army, 422,000 strong, as it invaded Russia in June 1812. The width of this band indicates the size of the army at each place on the map. In September, what was left of the soldiers, 100,000 men, reached a deserted Moscow. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow is depicted by the black, lower band. As indicated by the temperature scale and dates along the bottom of the chart, it was a bitterly cold winter, and many froze on the march out of Russia. The graph also shows what a disaster Napoleon’s crossing of the Berezina River was for his men, and the army finally staggered back into Poland with only 10,000 men remaining. Ten thousand out of 422,000. Despite a scale that reduces individual soldiers to data points in a pattern, it’s easy to agree with Étienne-Jules Marey’s assessment of the graph’s narrative power: it seems to “defy the pen of the historian by its brutal eloquence” (in Tufte, 40).

7As I hope the juxtaposition of these two depictions illustrates, scale plays an enormous role in what is seen, and therefore what is said, though when it comes to the novel, scale is often given no more thought than any of the other aesthetic choices that make up what is considered to be the “natural” way to write. To study the stars, goes the unconsidered logic, one must use a telescope; to study a flea, a microscope—instruments that allow us to see our subjects comfortably at the Human Scale. But it must also be true that the selection of scale determines subject—as well as what can be said—and this has ramifications for how we use literature to view our world.

8For the novel, too, is an instrument, a lens through which we see the world: an ontological probe, or tool for organizing seeming chaos into patterns of coherence. And as Swift demonstrates in Gulliver’s Travels, an author can adjust its scale with more freedom than the astronomer. So rather than adopting one, and only one, “natural” way to write, consider some options: in Charles and Ray Eames’s film The Powers of Ten, the camera is moved back by a factor of ten each time the view of two picnickers is reframed.1

Fig. 3: 100 (1m)

Fig. 3: 100 (1m)

9Here at the beginning the view point is at 100 or 1 meter away from its subject; this is the scale of the realist painting or novel, the world at a scale that would be familiar to the characters of Émile Zola, Adolph Northern or Frank Norris, for it is the scale of the every-day world where Newtonian physics work, as well as natural language, and common metaphor. It is the Human Scale of face-to-face interaction. But obviously it is not the only scale at which we humans experience the world:

Fig. 4: The Powers of Ten, 101

Fig. 4: The Powers of Ten, 101

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

10Anyone who has ever been in an airplane notices that as the plane rises, the three dimensional world that is so familiar at the scale of humans becomes two-dimensional: roads and buildings flatten, people disappear.

11That is, as the point of view rises, the Humanist Scale gives way to a scale of grander proportions—one that quickly dwarfs the individual:

Fig. 5: The Powers of Ten, 102

Fig. 5: The Powers of Ten, 102

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

Fig. 6: The Powers of Ten, 103

Fig. 6: The Powers of Ten, 103

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

12And as the individual recedes from the scene, so do the interactions that the conventional, realist novel is so concerned with: Vronsky’s reading a shadow of passion in Anna Karenina’s face; Crusoe coming upon a human footprint in the sand….

13What is lost in the move from the Human Scale of Northern’s painting of Napoleon to the scale of Minard’s graph of the Grand Army is the narrative of the individual viewpoint. What takes its place is pattern and shape: the grid of a city’s streets, ribbons of highway or the patchwork quilt of farm fields.

Fig. 7: The Powers of Ten, 104

Fig. 7: The Powers of Ten, 104

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

Fig. 8: The Powers of Ten, 105

Fig. 8: The Powers of Ten, 105

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

14Pull out even further, and even these traces of collective action evaporate, even human time, or as we might call it, Plot (Fig. 9). That is, as the scale of a point of view changes, so does the story.

Fig 9: The Powers of Ten, 106

Fig 9: The Powers of Ten, 106

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

Fig. 10: The Powers of Ten, 108

Fig. 10: The Powers of Ten, 108

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

15Anyone old enough to remember a world too big to be held in a single frame can remember how those first images taken from space of a blue, cloud-swirled globe suspended in utter darkness (Fig. 10) changed our view of the world, and therefore our stories about it, and our place in it. Like those looking through Galileo’s telescope at Jupiter’s moons, we felt ourselves shift a bit further from the center of the universe. The sidestep contained not a little anxiety, for as Thomas Kuhn points out, those critics of Galileo who refused to believe that the earth itself moves were not entirely wrong; up until then, “earth”—terra firma—was synonymous with “fixed, immovable position.” Galileo was not asking people to simply employ a neutral technology. He was asking them to step off into the unknown—to ignore centuries of social contract in the form of a “shared narrative”—and to re-imagine Earth as just another planet, a minor character in a different story.

16How unique and fragile that blue planet became again, 350 years after Galileo, when we were able to look back at a scale that allowed the entire globe of the earth to appear in a single frame. What we saw was a further shift from a “Great Man of History” vision embodied in Northern’s painting of Napoleon; the photo of Earth made it much easier to feel viscerally what we had already known: that all of us, including Great Men, were fellow travelers on a fragile space ship with finite space, finite resources.

Fig. 11: The Powers of Ten, 109

Fig. 11: The Powers of Ten, 109

Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977

17That is, a change in scale shifted our understanding of “earth” and “human,” and I dwell on scale in my consideration of the contemporary novel because—as I hope my introductory sketch implied—even the briefest of glances at our own cultural moment reveals how much easier it is to think at a scale where the world is not only smaller than it was at the time of Zola, Northern and Norris, but is also flatter: flat as a vast plain where everyone on it can see everyone else.

18So what can this mean for the novel? Perhaps as scale expands, Stendhal’s road of life shrinks into a web of pattern. Or perhaps more accurately, other patterns join it while humanist ideas of “self,” or the “mirror” traveling down this road become less relevant metaphors than a map of the Internet.

Fig. 12: Map of the internet (2008)

Fig. 12: Map of the internet (2008)

19Consider, for example, the ease with which we give up a measure of privacy in exchange for the convenience of using a charge card or email or social networking sites like one our picnickers may have met on, not to mention the increasing proportions of time spent on-line, engaged with the Facebook grid instead of engaged face-to-face. Or perhaps a rearguard response is responsible for the current resurgence in memoir or in the novel as ethnic memory. The possibilities are surely multiple and overlapping, and we don’t have to choose among them.

20My point is that the interconnected technologies that reconfigure the scales at which we experience the world today are no more neutral than was Galileo’s telescope, and are also just as inextricably linked to the paradigms by which we formulate the idea of the “human.” That is, before turning to consequences for the novel brought on by a reconsideration of scale, it seems necessary to turn to a re-consideration of the first term of the Human Scale, the “human,” especially in regards to where I end and you begin, especially given how the discursive, metaphoric, sense of this boundary becomes more problematic each day as its literal, more material, sense erodes.  

21In terms of discourse, of course, I am partially invoking Michel Foucault’s famous line—“man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (387).  I also invoke the critic Gerald Bruns whose survey of literature leads him to conclude, “the human has never been a stable, much less determinate, homogeneous concept,” but rather a “metaphorical concept, like the divine.”

22Like “the divine” Bruns writes, “the human” has always been a “literary concept.”  It can be said that the human has always been a concept in the way “earth” once meant “fixed immovable position,” a discursive formation that, like the word “earth” has been historically contingent, and has often been used to mark the boundary between human and not-human: human and barbarian, for example, or human and animals; or human and slaves; human and gods; or—bringing into our age—human and machine, or human and more than human. Or “is it,” Bruns asks, “less?”

23Bruns puts the contemporary iteration of the human into relief by referring to what might be called the pre-human, the literary construction of human nature that held sway long before the humanist self was embodied in the realist novel. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is Bruns’s exemplary text, for its stories of people turned into trees or spiders depict “the human subject as porous and exposed, liable at any moment to be rinsed like a washcloth by whatever surrounds it.”

24Similarly, he writes, much Modernist angst can be seen as anxiety over a shift in the narrative about what being human means. The demands of a boss, the pressure to conform life to train schedules, the constraints of bureaucracy, and other elements that made up Gregor Samsa’s very modern life transformed him into something not quite animal, nor insect, but not human being either.  Indeed, the realism (if not optical fidelity) of a Cubist painting might be said to reside in its fracturing of a coherent self.  In Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Bruns points out, Ulrich thinks of himself (and indeed any person) as having at least nine characters:

a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. He unites them in himself, but they dissolve him, so that he is really nothing more than a small basin hollowed out by these many streamlets that trickle into it, and drain out again, to join other such rills in filling some other basin. Which is why every inhabitant of the earth also has a tenth character that is nothing else than the passive fantasy of spaces yet unfilled. (30)

25Clearly, “being human,” at least as it is imagined in art and literature, is not a given. This “‘I’—let’s call it, out of courtesy to philosophical tradition,” Bruns writes,  “the logical subject, the disengaged punctual ego exercising rational control—the ‘I’ is always in danger of being lost and must struggle to preserve its integrity.” The human is a literary concept, critic N. Katherine Hayles notes, that is being eclipsed by a concept we must helplessly refer to as the “posthuman,” a term Priscilla Wald objects to because it implies, she maintains, that there was once a stable “human” to be post to. Helplessly, it seems, because we can no more stop the emergence of the posthuman than critics of Galileo could stop the dawn of a new earth, and for the same reason: the communal or discursive nature of nature, including human nature.

Or as Bruns puts it, being human is “a process in which others tend to interfere.”

Or, to put it less ominously, that is, to put it in a way that acknowledges our own complicity and desire for a world of global interconnectedness, foreign cars, off-the-shelf replacement hearts, open markets; a world where individual species can be seen as packets of information that can be copied, rearranged, and pasted—and all that comes with these new formations—it is a process in which others take part. Indeed, unlike Robinson Crusoe and other 18th or 19th century characters, unlike C.B. Macpherson’s formulation of the human—“the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them”—what makes us ‘post’ according to Hayles, is that there is “no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will.” (The fact that I think in English instead of Chinese has less to do with me than others.) It’s not that the posthuman is not free, she writes, rather, it is that the posthuman is “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (Hayles, 3).

26That is, there’s a striking symmetry between material and discursive interactions when courts are called upon to determine the legal “owner” of an embryo who (‘that’?) is the product of sperm from a bank, and an egg from a donor, nurtured in the womb of a surrogate rented by a fourth party who contributed none of the other “components.”  Since the advent of Dolly the Sheep—another watershed moment in how we see ourselves—much has been written about the material of the posthuman, and indeed it is easy to slide from a discussion of discourse into one of material concerns, for the two seem to form a Möbius strip that forces us to consider the individual person—even the body—in much more flexible terms than we have been accustomed. It is becoming increasingly easy to speak of human bodies as we have spoken of textual bodies—those “material-informational” entities Hayles refers to—for the very real cut-paste-and-burn mentality that has migrated to our bodies has translated onto the literal body a vocabulary of instabilities generated by the proliferation of body texts: imitation, pastiche, influence, quotation, irony, puns, or significantly, plagiarism and copyright infringement. That is, like those first pictures of earth from space, Dolly’s “birth”—is that the right word?—forces us to viscerally confront a place at which we had already arrived intellectually: a reconsideration of the body, the last stronghold of the individual’s claim to uniqueness in a world where the self was already seen to be constructed.

27In terms of the novel, it seems clear that a sense of human self is inextricably bound up with a sense of human scale, and together they form the cornerstone—or is it heart?—of the realist novel. So what might a reformulation of one mean for a refiguration of the other?  

28To begin, it certainly does not spell an end for the humanist novel; the novel of the Human Scale will always be with us, because our natural world will always be a world of face-to-face interaction. We will always be vitally interested in the individual, maybe even more so with the emergence of a posthuman consciousness: a rearguard action (think of the rise of landscape painting during the Industrial Revolution). And yet, as Kenneth Burke writes, a conception of man as that being who stole fire from the gods is going to result in very different works of literature than will a conception that sees man as a link in an evolutionary chain; and by extension we might add, so will that being who sees him or herself as in possession of a superabundance of subjectivity, “A self—who? That?”—to quote Bruns again, “is in excess of the subjectivity presupposed by knowledge, a posthuman, in other words, who appears when pattern rather than self-possessive individualism is taken as the “ground of being” (17).

29Against this backdrop, or rather, from within this network, we conduct our affairs; we find mates—both on-line and in the old-fashioned, Humanist face-to-face way; we procreate (both in test tubes and in the old-fashioned, face-to-face humanist way); we fight in court over whether or not genes can be patented and by whom—the person they were taken from or the pharmaceutical company that duplicates them. And, of course, we write novels.

30What might an emerging posthuman narrative look like? A narrative that does not, like its Modernist precedents, feel a blurring of the self’s boundaries as an existential crisis?  That simply takes this new status of the human as a state of nature? A narrative that turns the page on the modernist novel with its dream of the individual soaring above history as James Joyce ends his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or the despair of not being able to escape history, the nihilism at the end of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms? A narrative that is at home with a larger-than-human scale? That not only does not mourn the loss of the first person narrative, but privileges absence over presence, pattern over detail, that takes as a given the fact that the body, the last firewall to the individual, is in the end as permeable as other barriers between “I” / “others”?

31Just as there are many affinities between Modernist art and Modernist literature, or between Medieval art and Medieval literature, or the art and literature of any one time and place, so we might expect to find clues to a posthuman literature in what can be called posthuman art: for example in Eduardo Kac’s Genesis: an installation by which viewers around the globe can activate an ultra-violet light on a Petri dish of bacteria, and thereby mutate the sentence embedded in their DNA: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

Fig 13: Genesis (1999), Eduardo Kac

Fig 13: Genesis (1999), Eduardo Kac

(rights pending)

32Or the prosthetic ear that Australian performance artist Stelarc had surgically implanted into his forearm to allow anyone on the Internet to hear what he hears. Or Natalie Jeremijenko’s Bang Bang, for example, a work of art that uses gunshot-activated web-cams to create a video quilt of violent hotspots around the world: a ghetto in L.A., urban warfare in Kosovo, or Northern Ireland.

33Rather than embodying a viewpoint within a human character like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, rather than embodying the viewpoint of an artist or author, the viewpoints of these works are dissipated, leaving their traces as data points, as pattern, which together form what Hayles would refer to as “information narratives” (39): narratives where pattern overwhelms presence in that pattern is what captures our attention, informs our interpretation, rather than, say, a semiotic reading of the world through an individual embodied viewpoint: the world as perceived and represented to us through the body present in humanist narrative, for example. In Kac’s Genesis, it’s easy to see that pattern, rather than presence, has become the ground of its reality; its inception, execution and interpretation depend on a pattern: patterns of AGCTs, algorithms of information design, Morse Code, and the sort of change in scale we experience in a rising plane (or in Minard’s graph of Napoleon’s retreat), a change in scale that allows us to see data points as pattern, and pattern as narrative. With the fade of presence, the techniques of humanist narrative become less relevant, as well as the empiricism upon which they depend, or linear cause and effect, or plot.

34Yet, like the datapoints in Minard’s graph of The Grand Army’s retreat from Russia, the data that makes up both Genesis and Bang Bang has also been dramatized: though these works do not employ plots, they do move through time. Similarly, rather than plot, the engine of posthuman narrative is emergence, i.e., the process by which lower-level conditions and interactions give rise to higher order behaviors, patterns, formations, meanings (Figs. 14 A-C).

Fig. 14 A:

Fig. 14 A:

Collage as an organizing principle and manner of seeing

Fig. 14 B:

Fig. 14 B:

 Emergence as an organizing principle and manner of seeing

Fig. 14 C:

Fig. 14 C:

Emergence as an organizing principle and manner of seeing

35Emergence is both an organizing principle and a manner of seeing in the way that collage or perspective painting are also manners of seeing and means of organization. (As such, the concept of emergence can also be used as a lens through which to read, just as feminism can be used as a critical lens through which to understand the Iliad.) Think for example of evolution. At one scale, the humanist scale Darwin lived and worked at, the story of evolution can be seen as a story of cause and effect: mottled pigeons produce mottled pigeons when they mate with other mottled pigeons. At another scale, say the bird’s-eye view afforded by a rising airplane, or the scale of eco-informatics or statistical modeling, evolution can be thought of in terms of emergence: a cloud of interactions too numerable and complex to account for a linear cause-and-effect plot.

36How is it, John Holland asks, that without any central oversight, cities generally have on hand the right amount of food to feed their citizens instead of lurching between the waste of overabundance and the famine of scarcity? (Johnson 27). The answer lies, of course, in the feedback loops, constraints, and interactions among individuals acting for their own reasons: shopkeepers rent property on thoroughfares; thoroughfares stream the most potential shoppers, thus reinforcing those shopkeepers who rent property on thoroughfares. Similarly, an amalgam of other low-level interactions operating under constraints—e.g. survival of the fittest—allow increasingly complex formations—the platypus, for example—to emerge from impossibly simple beginnings, the AGCTs of all life. Or consider, for example, the way the aggregation of individual on-line searches for flu symptoms can form a snapshot of the spread of the actual disease; or the way Macrosense merges data from GPS, Wi-Fi positioning, cell-tower triangulation, RF identity chips and other sensors to create an information-laden snapshot of people and their movements: the time stock traders report to and leave work, for example, or which nightclubs you and your friends are going to tonight (Fig. 15). As Holland says, “Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time.” (Johnson 27).

Fig 15: Citysense map of nightclub activity (San Francisco)

Fig 15: Citysense map of nightclub activity (San Francisco)

37Of course all of this has a Foucaultian ring to it; it is easy to think of an emergent world—a world where pigeons and platypuses, pop stars, and best sellers, as well as discursive objects, meaning in narrative, and other elements that constitute “knowledge” come into being as the result of independent lower-level interactions. It is easy to see an epistemology of emergence as a generalization of the process by which discursive objects come into existence.

38Indeed, Holland’s image of a rock in a stream could serve as a metaphor for the “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak,” be they “Madness,” the “Human,” the “Posthuman”: the rock and river banks act as constraints that allow the stream of language to form discursive standing waves, including, of course, the novel (Foucault, Archaeology 428).

39Put another way, in describing emergence I have slid into a description of emergent narrative as a mode of narration that complements a post-human ground of being as well as the humanist novel fits the humanist conception of “mankind.” And, just as no period ends or begins abruptly, it might be said that we have been thinking of narrative in terms of emergence for some time, even if we may not have yet embraced its name. That is, for some time now, we workers in literature have understood all the world as a text: patterns form through time by the dynamics of feedback loops that give the appearance of self-organization, though there is no self, and indeed no consciousness that the word “organization” may imply; there is no collective sense of a beginning or endpoint, as the various actors and catalysts and conditions, including their constraints, unwittingly create a higher-level order. It might be said that this higher order is invisible to those who are part of its makeup as it can only be seen from above, or in history’s rear-view mirror.  

40Put another way, all narrative is a matter of architecture, and architecture is always semiotically loaded, especially the architecture of information. The Tree of Life can be drawn as an actual, ancient oak tree as it was in Darwin’s time, or drawn as a corporate organization chart, as was fashionable during the last century; or it can be drawn as it is often drawn today: as folders of digital information that show at a glance, for example, how closely a human might be genetically related to a mouse. By choosing the architecture of one system, be it a haiku or a repair manual, we enable some values and disable others. By constructing a narrative at one scale rather than another we determine what will be seen, and the rhetorical tools of analysis. And this of course goes for the architecture of the novel. At the humanist scale, we have dialog, smell, and the other senses, as well as all the other cultural markers a novelist might draw upon, as noted by Roland Barthes in S/Z or Erich Auerbach’s monumental Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. By adopting a non-human scale, we enable readers to see in another way, allowing other stories to emerge, other considerations to be made.

41A posthuman, emergent novel would not necessarily be any more or less accurate a model of the world than those glorious 19th century novels, or the novel in general, that structure best suited to “organizing vast amounts of information into patterns possessing cognitive value and coherence,” as Joseph Tabbi describes it (3).

42But like those earlier novels, if our model is well chosen, if the world is a literature of constraint from which patterns emerge, and our novel is conceived of as a literature of constraint from which sense emerges, the two models may map onto one another: a narrative may emerge that says something we can believe in that might not be apparent with our eyes too close to our neighbor.

43I have indulged in a thought experiment to imagine what a posthuman novel might look like. Yet, this has not so much been an exercise in imagination as one of simply looking at the world as it already exists. For the posthuman work of art or literature, as Hayles says of the posthuman, will not have any traction unless “the cultural conditions authorizing the assumptions are pervasive enough that the posthuman is experienced as an everyday, lived reality as well as an intellectual proposition” (39).

44Given how much of our lived experience seems to privilege pattern over presence; where biology is information and information can be turned into biology; where email signatures replace the penmanship of an actual hand while human voice and intelligence is augmented by that of the machine; given how natural it is becoming for bodies to be manipulated down to the level of the cell, it comes as no surprise that within this mix we find posthuman art as I have described. Or consider how encyclopedias have changed in the age of Wikipedia, or how journalism or historiography—indeed all story telling—is evolving in the climate of collaborative blogs. Patrik Ouredník’s novel Europeana is a historical rewriting of the last century with much affinity to Minard’s graph. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, a rewriting of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, presents the human as a collage of others. The story of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 comes not from any plot or emotional bonds with a title character. Rather, its portrait of contemporary life and humanity emerges from the collective summaries of hundreds of characters. Similarly, Kate, the protagonist of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, believes she is the last person on earth.  She lives in museums such as the Louvre, burns Delacroix and DaVinci paintings to keep warm, and by the end of this plotless novel of digression, of loops and eddy currents, allows a story to emerge that convinces the reader that she is in fact the only human, if not the last person on earth.

45Many characteristics of an emergent, posthuman novel—malleability, ease of recombination, dependence on the image, interactivity, infinite linkage and therefore indeterminacy, the dispersal of Origins, of Author/Authority, its grounding in pattern rather than presence, and material-informational entities—many of these characteristics seem also to characterize our cultural moment, a posthuman emergent manner of seeing coming from, and handing back our world as Stendhal’s mirror once came from, reflected, and helped articulate the world of his time.

46Think of turn-of-the-century Parisians enthusiastically gathered around the first kinescopes to watch a jerky movie of a horse. The horse, i.e. the content, obviously wasn’t what excited people whose real horses were hitched to posts outside. Rather, it was the virtual reality of the kinescope, that is, the Modernist way of seeing it afforded—a way to order the world through division and recombination with ramifications as profound as Renaissance viewers found the perspective painting with its case for re-ordering the Medieval “always-ever-present” in a spatial, rather than divine, hierarchy. Razor blades, light bulbs, phonographs—the great wash of consumer products made possible by modern manufacturing stood for modern society, and people became modern by using them, and this was especially true for products that embodied a modern way of seeing. For seeing—including seeing through the epistemological lens that is the novel—is also a way of orienting oneself to the world.

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Bibliographie

bruns, Gerald. “On Ceasing to Be Human.” Manuscript of the Roger Allan Moore Lecture at the Department of Social Medicine of the Harvard Medical School, April 1998.

foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

______. The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

holland, John H. Emergence: From Chaos to Order. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner, 2001.

khun, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

macpherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Quoted in HAYLES.

musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. New York: Vintage International, 1996.

tabbi, Joseph. Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.

tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Chesire (Connecticut): Graphics Press, 2001.

wald, Priscilla. Personal conversation. March 2009.

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Notes

1  The film can be viewed on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0

Link last consulted on October 31, 2013.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow, (1851) by Adolph Northern (aka Northen)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Fig. 2: Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 graph (Carte Figurative)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 388k
Titre Fig. 3: 100 (1m)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Fig. 4: The Powers of Ten, 101
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 312k
Titre Fig. 5: The Powers of Ten, 102
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Fig. 6: The Powers of Ten, 103
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Fig. 7: The Powers of Ten, 104
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 392k
Titre Fig. 8: The Powers of Ten, 105
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 428k
Titre Fig 9: The Powers of Ten, 106
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 360k
Titre Fig. 10: The Powers of Ten, 108
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 260k
Titre Fig. 11: The Powers of Ten, 109
Crédits Screen captures of The Powers of Ten, dirs. Charles and Ray Earnes, 1977
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Fig. 12: Map of the internet (2008)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 300k
Titre Fig 13: Genesis (1999), Eduardo Kac
Crédits (rights pending)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Fig. 14 A:
Légende Collage as an organizing principle and manner of seeing
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 396k
Titre Fig. 14 B:
Légende  Emergence as an organizing principle and manner of seeing
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 276k
Titre Fig. 14 C:
Légende Emergence as an organizing principle and manner of seeing
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 328k
Titre Fig 15: Citysense map of nightclub activity (San Francisco)
URL http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/docannexe/image/3562/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 70k
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Référence électronique

Steve Tomasula, « Visualization, Scale, and the Emergence of Posthuman Narrative », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 17 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2013, consulté le 30 mai 2017. URL : http://sillagescritiques.revues.org/3562

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Auteur

Steve Tomasula

Steve Tomasula est l’auteur de romans à l’intersection du texte et de l’image tels The Book of Portraiture et VAS: An Opera in Flatland, qui a été salué comme le roman de la révolution biotechnologique. Il a également écrit les romans IN & OZ et TOC : A New Media-Novel, qui a reçu le prix Mary Shelley et les récompenses Médaille d’or et Meilleur livre (multimédia) de l’année lors des e-Lit Awards. Il a écrit nombre de fictions et d’essais pour des revues très diverses, parmi lesquelles Bomb, McSweeney’s et la Iowa Review, qui lui a décerné le Iowa Prize pour la meilleure œuvre tous genres confondus. Il a écrit des essais critiques sur la littérature, la génétique et le body art. Il est Howard Fellow et vit à Chicago. Son site internet est www.stevetomasula.com.
Steve Tomasula is the author of the image-text novels The Book of Portraiture and VAS: An Opera in Flatland, the acclaimed novel of the biotech revolution.  He is also the author of the novels IN & OZ, and most recently, TOC: A New-Media Novel, which received the Mary Shelley Award for Excellence in Fiction, and the Gold Medal, Best Book of the Year (Multimedia), in the eLit Awards. He has contributed fiction and essays to a wide variety of publications, including Bomb, McSweeney’s, and The Iowa Review, where he received the Iowa Prize for the most distinguished work published in any genre. His writings on literature, genetic and body art have also been widely published. A Howard Fellow, he lives in Chicago, and can be found online at www.stevetomasula.com.

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