As usual for my D.H. course, we read a rather disparate group of readings, from Marshall McLuhan to Gilles Deleuze to Raymond Williams. The McLuhan essay began with a discussion of the grotesque, a concept that I’ve never thought about in any meaningful way. This week in the 20th C. Am. Novels seminar, though, we were discussing Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio
, which begins with a story called “The Book of the Groteque.” (I don’t have my copy so I’m going from a Nook edition and not paginating.) Anderson describes an old writer who had a thought, a thought that “was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this: That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.” The “grotesques,” for the old man, are what were created when people (some of whom were “quite strong” and “snatched up a dozen”) created their lives around the truths:
“ It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”Within the structure of the book, there are a lot of interesting things about this passage, but what really interested me in reading the McLuhan (whom, I should add, I’ve never read before and have recently developed an interest in after reading some of the ways his work is being applied, especially in some things by Harman). McLuhan, in “The Galaxy Reconfigured” (1962) traces a fascinating history of usage of the “grotesque,” from Ruskin’s idea of it as “the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character” (qtd. in McLuhan 195) to Joyce’s acceptance of the grotesque as a mode of broken or syncopated manipulation to permit inclusive or simultaneous perception of a total and diversified field,” which McLuhan identifies as “symbolism by definition – a collocation, a parataxis
of components representing insight by carefully established ratios, but without a point of view or lineal connection or sequential order” (195-96; italics in original).
Maybe appropriately, McLuhan uses this approach to dramatize the distinction between the singular perspective and multiple, the way in which Joyce changes the rhetorical figures of Quintillan (which McLuhan refers to as “archetypes or postures of individual minds” (196)) into symbols, which are (perhaps because of definitional necessity) shared: “archetypes or postures of individual minds” (196).
The idea that we should have a right to dictate how information we generate through our searches and data entries are, I think, sound: despite protestations that we should simply “be careful” what we post, the computational abilities of a company like Google or Facebook, when they have the ability to cross reference our emails and searches, makes the idea of an equal relationship unrealistic. I think these authors are absolutely right in expressing concern with the unregulated control we accept (largely by implied consent) when we use them.
What interests me, though, in line with the use of the “grotesque,” is the idea Keen expresses that “That data is us.” Prima facie, this makes sense: in the sense of verifiable data, with the right algorithm and sufficient processing power, it would be possible to create very accurate representation of several aspects of a person’s identity.
But the idea of “data” being an “I,” in the sense of egoic identity, misses something vital. It is, I think, the grotesque, running along some line between Anderson’s use and MacLuhan’s tracing out of the concept, a line that, on further exploration, turns out to be a continuum: the point for Anderson, as I read him, is that accepting one or even several truths as somehow fundamental to the working of life and basing life around them, is what flattens people into grotesques, distorted, caricature-like figures, crude cave drawings of humans. Similarly, the idea of reducing people to a metric of information misses the point of composition – and, paradoxically, even as people of objects, taken in a specific sense.
Objects have parts, it’s true. One can even describe an object by its parts. But an object, to borrow from Harman’s The Prince of Networks, “is real not by virtue of being tiny and fundamental, but by virtue of having an intrinsic reality that is not reducible to its subcomponents or exhausted by its functional effects on other things” (215). Put another way, there are things that people can do (or even, I would argue, not do but have the potential for doing) that the data sets describing them cannot. The data sets – what books I’m likely to buy on Amazon, or whether my frequent searches for kitchen tools indicates my socioeconomic strata – are real in their own right, and descriptors of certain things. Nevertheless, they remain only sensual objects, existing (again in Harman’s terms) only “on the interior of some other object,” existing solely as exterior states (215).
This is not, of course, the only way to pursue it: we could think instead of the Deleuzian assemblages from the last selection in this section, which comprise “lines and measurable speeds” (407). What is missing in either case is the idea of mediation as an activity that, here, is a creative tool. Even an exact detailing of every activity from every part of life, a “universal biography” to rival Borges’ Universal Library, would still not have an exact identity: it would be an abstracted description, in some sense, mediated into whatever forms of measurement would be universalizable in this instance.
I don’t want to suggest that these privacy concerns aren’t real: they are. And we should be angry over some of the things being done, I think, and take action. But I think we should also be concerned about the widespread view of mediated data sets being “us,” the idea of being reducible into these sets. Again, I don’t even mean this in the sense of some sort of qualia. Instead, I think it’s a question (to use a properly DH term) of interface: leaving behind an arboreal model of knowledge – and thus, I think, of self – and adopting even momentarily a more rhizomatic model, we would have to ask the same questions of such a data set – and of a human identity– that Deleuze and Guattari ask of books: ”what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own converge” (407). This, I think, has profound implications – not the least for whether I really am reducible to my Amazon addiction in any but the singular sense of interacting with Amazon and my increasingly frustrated banker.