Network Aesthetics

Network Aesthetics

by Patrick Jagoda


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Even as “network” has become a contemporary keyword, its overuse has limited its analytic usefulness. In the enthusiasm that orbits the concept, the network is too easily taken up as a term that we should already know. Patrick Jagoda claims that we do not, in fact, know networks, in part because of their very ubiquity and variety. His book shows how a range of popular aesthetic forms mediate our experience of networks and yield up greater insight into this critical concept. Each chapter of “Network Aesthetics” considers how a different contemporary genre makes sense of decentralized network structure, from fiction, film, and television to popular videogames such as Introversion’s “Uplink,” experimental games such as Jason Rohrer’s “Between,” and emergent transmedia storytelling forms such as “Alternate Reality Games.” Jagoda wants to show that network aesthetics, in all of these cases, are not simply the quality of a genre; more substantively, they are a critical corollary to an era in which interconnection has become a key cultural framework. “Network Aesthetics” cuts through the clichés of sublime interconnection and illuminates the ordinary, lived aspects of networked life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226346519
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Patrick Jagoda is assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago and a coeditor of Critical Inquiry.

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Network Aesthetics

By Patrick Jagoda

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34665-6


Maximal Aesthetics: Network Novels

Acts of mapping are creative, sometimes anxious, moments in coming to knowledge of the world, and the map is both the spatial embodiment of knowledge and a stimulus to further cognitive engagements. Denis Cosgrove, Mappings

And how can you tell the difference between orange juice and agent orange if the same massive system connects them at levels outside your comprehension? Don DeLillo, Underworld

The Network Novel

In this chapter, I explore the network novel — a late twentieth-century genre that reworks and intensifies the cultural concerns regarding a world interconnected by communication and transportation networks, and made unprecedentedly dependent upon an informational economy. I date the apex of this genre to the 1990s. Certainly there are earlier examples, such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), which was published in the early years of complexity science and during the rise of globally oriented American neoliberalism. It was not until the early 1990s, however, that the popularization of the Internet altered the public perception of information technology and transformed networks into an even more prominent metaphor of contemporary life. Numerous novels published during the period registered this major shift and explored the interdisciplinary significance of networks. Several formally innovative novels from the 1990s, including Pat Cadigan's Synners (1991), Marge Piercy's He, She and It (1991), Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), and David Mitchell's Ghostwritten (1999), examine the danger and promise of the seemingly ubiquitous network form. Similarly, early twenty-first-century novels and interconnected short story collections, such as Richard Powers's Plowing the Dark (2000), Walter Mosley's Futureland (2001), David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), oscillate among multiple perspectives and transnational sites in order to interrogate the significance of networks in an unfolding present.

In what follows, I neither categorize all of the recurring attributes of the network novel nor offer a comprehensive list of texts that make up this canon. Instead of such encyclopedic labor, I use this genre to explore the relationship between network structures and novelistic form in late twentieth-century American literature. While network visualizations offer a stable representation or a map of elements configured as nodes and links, the novel makes possible processes of mapping networks across space and time. As we will see, network novels do not take networks for granted as stable objects. They seek to intervene, linguistically and aesthetically, in the cultural field of the network imaginary. My selected textual nodes for this analysis — Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) and Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (1999) — foreground the maximal capacities of network aesthetics. Maximalism marks a quality of all of the cultural works in this book insofar as they animate complexity in order to both enable and limit knowledge. The novels in this chapter also activate a series of other concepts that network form encourages us to think about in new ways. These intersecting concepts include "knowledge," "history," "event," and "materiality," as well as Fredric Jameson's aesthetic of "cognitive mapping."

With Underworld and Cryptonomicon, DeLillo and Stephenson veer from previous creative orientations — postmodern literature and science fiction, respectively — to write maximalist texts that aspire to be histories of the present. Both novels historicize a world that increasingly follows network logics through formal and stylistic techniques. DeLillo's and Stephenson's texts also envision networks in varied pasts and possible futures that give shape to their contemporary moments in the late 1990s. It is important to emphasize that these novels do not merely represent or thematize networks. Instead, they find their fundamental aesthetic raison d'être in the paradigm shift of the network society that they interrogate and intensify through metaphor and technological imaginaries.

Even as I am not proposing a set definition of the network novel, it is worth thinking heuristically about this genre category at the outset. What, fundamentally, does it mean for Underworld and Cryptonomicon to be network novels? One way to answer this question is to differentiate the network novel from two important genres that are related but register different historical imperatives: the encyclopedic narrative and the postmodern novel. The "encyclopedic narrative," first of all, is a category proposed by Edward Mendelson as a central genre of Western literature, a transhistorical collection of texts that include Dante's Commedia, Melville's Moby-Dick, and Joyce's Ulysses. Encyclopedic narratives are maximalist works that originate within national cultures. Unlike epics, which take place in "a legendary past," encyclopedic narratives attempt to make sense of their present moment's historical emergence. Through techniques such as synecdoche and metaphor, these texts seek "to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge." The encyclopedic narrative assembles numerous literary styles and genres, "incorporating, but never limited to, the conventions of heroic epic, quest romance, symbolist poem, Bildungsroman, psychomachia, bourgeois novel, lyric interlude, drama, eclogue and catalogue."

Underworld and Cryptonomicon — especially given their maximalism — could easily be mistaken for encyclopedic narratives, but notable differences set them apart from this genre. The Enlightenment-era genre of the modern encyclopedia is aligned with nationalist aspirations. Alphabetically ordered and intent on totalizing classification, an encyclopedic compendium of human knowledge develops a general system to assimilate all the globe's diversity. The encyclopedia represents a prime archival structure of imperial organizing ambitions that finds its present-day extension, for instance, in big data. However, network novels dating back to Gravity's Rainbow reveal an ambivalent relationship to such informatic organization. On the one hand, these texts achieve historical scope, geographical coverage, and multidisciplinary referentiality that are in fact encyclopedic. On the other, these novels privilege decidedly nonencyclopedic fragmentation, apophenic linkage of elements, difficulty of access for their contemporary audiences, and lack of neat segmentation. Moreover, these texts shift explicitly from a national to a transnational frame. Finally, for Mendelson, an encyclopedic author seeks an external vantage point — a "position at the edge of a culture" — from which to redefine that culture and its boundaries. A network novel, however, produces a different kind of leading "edge" that aestheticizes immanent interconnectedness without any hope of transcendence.

Second, it is worth marking a difference between the post-1945 postmodern novel and the network novel. Certainly one might track continuities between these genres, which become evident in the movement between DeLillo's later postmodern novels such as Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991) and the network novel Underworld. Nevertheless, as I hope to demonstrate, a novel such as Underworld performs and encodes its sense of connectivity, at a formal level, in ways that are specific to an era saturated by networks. The shift from postmodern literature to the network novel parallels the broader technological transition that the media critic Tiziana Terranova marks in her analysis of the novelty of open Internet infrastructure. "Within open architecture, in fact," Terranova explains, "electronic space is not conceived as composed of different fragments, juxtaposed together in a pastiche mode, as in postmodern architecture. The different components accommodated by open architecture are no inert fragments of living or dead styles, but autonomous networks in continuous expansion and modification." In place of the fragmentation, pastiche, and metafictional impulses of the postmodern (though these persist to some degree), the network introduces the extensibility and reconfigurability of "open architecture." This change is mirrored in the novels that I analyze in this chapter at the levels of both genre and medium. Underworld, for instance, manifests an inclusive awareness of genres reaching from sentimental melodrama to cultural satire to historical metafiction. Similarly, DeLillo's "multimedia mimicry," as Timothy Parrish calls it, involves aesthetics that channel media such as the novel, photography, comics, radio, home video, film, and television. Without striving for a realistic description or ekphrastic rendition, both Underworld and Cryptonomicon invoke the metamedium of the Internet.

The form of the novel flourished in the eighteenth century and achieved maturity in the nineteenth century; network novels demonstrate that this literary form continues to affect the present, both informing and being informed by networks. It is worth emphasizing that the ceaseless announcements of the novel's obsolescence (which did not originate but nonetheless proliferated through the discourse of postmodernism) have been overstated, inattentive to the form's historical changes, and symptomatic of broader ideological fears about new technologies and the cultural authority of literature. The novel remains an important narrative technology of interiority that figures into and changes within a transmedia ecology. Novels remain popular and culturally significant (as was confirmed, for instance, by the success of Underworld, a best seller that earned DeLillo $1.3 million for English-language rights to the novel and another million for rights to its cinematic adaptation).

The two novels that I discuss in this chapter do not approach networks as a concept that we should already know. Both texts juxtapose various historical moments, from the mid- to late twentieth century, to defamiliarize and trouble our sense of what a network has been, is, and might be. These novels — one literary and the other purportedly popular — go about this task in different ways. When juxtaposed, they suggest a spectrum of linguistic mapping techniques undertaken by the broader genre of network novels. DeLillo, on the one hand, foregrounds language and novelistic form as a means for making sense of networks and exploring their disorienting effects. Stephenson, on the other hand, emphasizes the limits of natural language and the novel in a transnational era that relies on the very different logic of computer code and network protocols. Both texts treat networks as dynamic historical structures that can be experienced, even as they invariably exceed human comprehension.

When read together, then, Underworld and Cryptonomicon disclose both the novel form's epistemological capacity to know networks and its capacity to record the structural impossibility of knowing networks through language alone. As I also argue, the various clashes of formal logics in these texts run parallel to paradoxical sociopolitical logics inherent in the discourse and material practices associated with transnational networks of late capitalism. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the language of networks frequently marked the rise of US power, and by the end of the century, it served just as often to signal America's domestic crisis and imperial excesses. For all of their instructive differences, Underworld and Cryptonomicon both use network aesthetics to animate these tensions.

Network Unknowns: Events and Atmospheres in Underworld

The network imaginary invites us to think anew about concepts that are at the very core of the humanities, including knowledge and history. Though network science uses networks to make sense of the world, especially through the mapping of connections among nodes, the defining complexity of networks also invokes the realm of the unknown. In aesthetics, the quality that most commonly evokes the way that networks exceed individual human comprehension is the sublime. The sublime emerges from eighteenth-century romanticist writing about awe-inspiring natural objects, from majestic mountains to turbulent oceans, that can be analyzed but remain formless, indistinct, and incomprehensible in their entirety. As Jean-François Lyotard observes, however, the sublime may also have been the dominant sensibility of modern art, which has sought to "present the fact that the unpresentable exists." This modernist fascination with the unrepresentable continued through the postmodern period. As Joseph Tabbi explains, following World War II, the sublime no longer summoned either a theological or an artistic order, but rather one dominated by the increasingly unknowable technological and corporate networks that appear, for instance, throughout the work of American novelists such as Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, and Don DeLillo.

A network sublime emerges directly from postmodern antecedents and is most evident in those ubiquitous network visualizations that represent big-data outputs (fig. 1.1). It also appears in literary texts such as the 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, in which William Gibson famously conjures his "cyberspace" network by describing it as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." Gibson's series of sentence fragments, spatial figures, and similes evokes the sublime by, at once, declaring the network's totality ("a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system") and gesturing toward an apprehension that is at most partial, tangential, or asymptotic ("unthinkable complexity").

Though the extraordinary sublime remains arguably the most common aesthetic concept for representing interlinked systems, network novels instead approach the unknowns of interconnection through ordinary encounters. Underworld — a print text about an increasingly electronic era that does not focus predominantly on computer networks — registers many of the epistemological problems that accompany the rise of networks as a dominant form. Unlike more explicit novelistic appropriations of digital media, whether print novels that thematize networks (e.g., William Gibson's Pattern Recognition) or electronic literature that relies on the web (e.g., Michael Joyce's Twelve Blue), Underworld conveys a sense and experience of networks. Across its 800-plus pages, DeLillo's novel moves among several connective styles — associative stream of consciousness, paranoid terror, dialectical synthesis, historical juxtaposition, and hypertextual suggestion — and through each of these modes invites active participation. By challenging and disorienting the reader, the novel privileges everyday processes of networking in the historical present over networks as comprehensible structures of control and organization.

Underworld underscores the ways in which a novel both can and cannot know networks. One character, the waste theorist Jesse Detwiler, articulates a recurring proposition of the novel: "Everything's connected." This novel's larger project involves historicizing both the epistemological and aesthetic dimensions of this claim about interconnection. Instead of beginning its narrative at the end of World War II — the "post-1945" that serves as a common marker of the beginning of American "global" power in texts such as Gravity's Rainbow — DeLillo starts in the early 1950s. The opening chapter features the event of the pennant game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers that took place on October 3, 1951 — a day characterized not merely by the home run dubbed the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" but also by the Soviet Union's second atomic bomb test. In this noisy historical scene, the abundant linkages begin. DeLillo's text generates a history of American life in the latter half of the twentieth century, estranging readers from this chronology by narrating it largely in reverse order. It is nevertheless a history that emphasizes myriad internal connections that crisscross among ordinary atmospheres and world-historical events. Dense linkages among characters, plotlines, and themes are, of course, nothing new. This oft-mentioned feature of Underworld is already an aspect of many modernist texts and encyclopedic narratives, and is arguably a feature of the majority of texts that scholars identify as "literary." Nevertheless, this novel frames interconnection through a contemporary language of networks.


Excerpted from Network Aesthetics by Patrick Jagoda. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Introduction: Network Aesthetics

Part 1: Linear Forms

1. Maximal Aesthetics: Network Novels
2. Emergent Aesthetics: Network Films
3. Realist Aesthetics: Televisual Networks

Part 2: Distributed Forms

4. Participatory Aesthetics: Network Games
5. Improvisational Aesthetics: Alternate Reality Games

Coda: After Networks (Comes Ambivalence)

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