THE LIBRARY OF BABEL

pp. 1-2

In conclusion, then, it seems clear that the gendering of mass culture as feminine and inferior has its primary historical place in the late 19th century, even though the underlying dichotomy did not lose its power until quite recently. The implications of this provide a fairly simple creative starting point for much metafictional play. The fact is (or, it follows) that writing can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation, ‘depiction’ (as the Classics would say); rather, it designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given in the first person and in the present tense) in which the enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered—something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets. Characters in fiction are, of course, literally signs on a page before they are anything else. This is a conceit through which a speaker effectively removes his presence from the novel and turns it over to his fictional construction, not unlike how the little boy learns that his crying is not masculine, and so he must grow into his masculinity by imitating the behavior designated as “male” to the point that such behavior becomes “second nature.” The concept of the novel, then, feeds into the (post)modern paranoia about the possibility of conspiracies or social phenomena that are carefully hidden from public discourse. In a more general perspective, however, this view implies a concept of literary evolution as improvement that I find hard to accept. The forms of art change, but do they really evolve or get better in any way? Indeed, just as a self-reflexive text must refer by default to its conservative ancestry, so the most conservative text must also contain the capacity for self-reflexivity and ironic critique: the capacity is only recognized through the act of reading.

The result is the creation of a reality sufficiently autonomous and intransitive to be explored at length as to its properties and the human condition it implies. The forces at work in these systems operate on multiple levels: underlying changes in technology that enable new kinds of entertainment; new forms of online communications that cultivate audience commentary about works of pop culture; changes in the economics of the culture industry that encourage repeat viewing; and deep-seated appetites in the human brain that seek out reward and intellectual challenge. Reality effects are designed to create the aura of real life through their sheer meaninglessness: things exist simply for background texture, to create the illusion of a world cluttered with objects that have no narrative or symbolic meaning. Even more, we should consider the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of literature and science, and the ways in which it has emerged as a notable area of inquiry. There is an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a post-modernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end. Nevertheless, the historical world is something that lies outside and beneath all our representations of it. It is a brute reality in which objects collide, actions occur, and forces take their toll.

It’s only fitting that when a playwright turns a story into a script, he has to arrange characters, events, and sentiments in a sequence of playable units or scenes. Likewise, a photograph printed using a halftone process combines discrete and continuous representations. What we must conclude, then, is that if the classic off-screen narrator is often called the Voice of God—since the audience hears his pronouncements without seeing the embodied speaker—then it is true of all desire that it depends on the infinite pursuit of its absent object. Seen in this light, the idea of private intellectual property seems almost laughable, for the image orchestrates a gaze, a limit—and its pleasurable transgression. Momentary obliviousness to being observed allows human beings to sin, according to this logic. And privacy, then, is an illusion, a dangerous illusion that promotes sinfulness. Regardless, the center also closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible. This fact has profound consequences for what we too hastily think of as “our” concepts, “our” readings, “our” histories, which are in an important sense not ours at all.

There are movies that are criticized because their visual effects are too striking for the narrative line to support. If this is the case, then certain films become that much more significant because they are texts that openly disrupt conventional notions of safety and the structural, narrative conventions that might provide safety, and yet crowds flock to them. That is “mass production,” not in the sense of a massive production or for use by the masses, but the production of the masses. Remember: literary forms certainly have histories and historical contingencies, and it may well be that the novel’s time as a major art form is up, as the “times” of classical tragedy, grand opera, or the sonnet sequence came to be. Along these lines, there is simply no overstating the importance of science fiction to the present cultural moment, a moment that sees itself as science fiction. After all, the imagination is poor and will be more and more easily encoded. Increasingly, men will ask machines to make them forget machines; perhaps the apotheosis of the civilized individual will be to live in an entirely novelized way. System replaces essence, which can be bad if the latter is what one searches for. But in fact, true experiments (as in science) never reach, or at least should never reach, the printed page. Fiction is called experimental out of despair. The logical evolution of a science is to distance itself increasingly from its object, until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy is only rendered even more fantastic—it attains its pure form. In any case, experimentation is thus not a means to an end, it is a contemporary challenge and torture.

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