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Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society

Author: Steven Shaviro
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review Published: July 2006

 REVIEW 1: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
 REVIEW 2: Jarice Hanson
 REVIEW 3: Meredith Tromble
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Steven Shaviro

I am about to commit what I consider to be a cardinal sin of academic discourse [*]. For this I am heartily sorry, and am reaching into the big bag of professional plenary indulgences, hoping for a bit of pre-emptive absolution. I wouldn't do it if I didn't have what I think to be a pretty important point to make.

The sin is a variant of the conference session Q&A sin that we've all seen committed -- and, save us, that we may ourselves have committed -- countless times in the past: that of responding to the work a colleague has just presented by saying, in effect, "that's very interesting -- but why didn't you do it the way I'd have done it?" (In fact, one might suggest that the vast majority of critical discourse has this question as its deep subtext, but that's a whole other conversation.)

In any case: Steven Shaviro, I hope you can forgive me, but honestly, the first thought I had upon finishing Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society was pretty much exactly "Wow, that's really great. But I wonder why he didn't do it the way I'd have done it?"

Or, to recast that into a more sophisticated form of academic rhetoric, Shaviro's Connected is a wide-ranging, erudite, fascinating exploration into the effects that our growing network society is having on our work lives, our consumer lives, our emotional lives, our sex lives, and every other imaginable aspect of our lives as contemporary subjects, but that broad field of inquiry, particularly as combined with the book's own emulation of a kind of node-and-link structure, raises the question of the text's status as a book. What might Connected have been able to accomplish if it had been published electronically -- that is, if the text itself had been networked?

Connected, as Shaviro states in his introduction, takes as its method an attempt to write critical theory as if it were science fiction, and thus the text is poised on the tenuous line between present and future, between what will be and what may be. Science fiction, after all, is as Shaviro points out "about the shadow that the future casts upon the present. It shows us how profoundly we are haunted by the ghosts of what has not yet happened" (250). In thinking about society through such a speculative, imaginative framework, Shaviro is able to project not just actualities but implications, specters, in ways that seem at one and the same time absolutely true and so far-fetched as to be other-worldly.

Structurally, Shaviro is able to accomplish such projections through a technique that I read as borrowing from hypertext: shortish chunks of text (ranging from just a few lines to two-plus pages), each aphoristically but with great focus exploring some very local facet of network culture or its representations. Here's one random but nonetheless representative chunk, selected primarily for length:
    Oxygen. Information is like the air we breathe. It is the element we live in. It surrounds us on all sides, and we couldn't live without it. Does this mean that information ought to be free, or at least a public good? A libertarian, free-market economist warns us against such logic. Steven E. Landsburg tells us of the many problems we face simply because air is free. That is why we suffer from air pollution, for example. If the atmosphere were privately owned and sold on the open market, then we would be compelled to use it more efficiently. There would be a "powerful disincentive" to waste and pollution, Landsburg says, if only we would have to pay for the right to breathe freely." Landsburg modestly fails to note another advantage of his plan: it would also solve the problem of overpopulation. If too many people were competing for limited natural resources, then scarcity would cause the price of air to rise. And this, in turn, would reduce the consumption of air, especially by all those impoverished and inefficient breathers. In short order, the market would work its magic, and the population of the world would be cut back to a suitable equilibrium level. (48)
Each of these nodes bears its own title, and each, it seems, could stand more or less on its own -- but at the same time, each is connected by multiple, often ephemeral, strands to the nodes that precede and follow it. "Oxygen" follows a chunk focused on digital code as a universal medium of exchange (like money), which follows a chunk on the efficiency of Digital Rights Management (DRM) as a mode of information control, as compared with censorship; "Oxygen" likewise leads into a section on the use of defamation suits as a means of controlling free speech in Singapore, and the privatization and incorporation of free speech via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As you read, the focus of the text thus subtly and gradually slips from one plane to another, without your necessarily being aware of the logic of the shift.

What such a structure enables Shaviro to do is reflect at one and the same time the celebrated state of fragmentation in which the postmodern subject exists and the inescapable connectedness, via the network, of all of those fragments. Shaviro thus finally demonstrates, in a way that (in my reading, at least) has thus far never quite been managed, how the postmodern condition can be simultaneously that in which the wholeness of modernity has become impossible, in which no metanarrative can any longer suffice, and at one and the same time a condition so all-encompassing as to be totalized, the metanarrative to end all metanarratives. The structure of Connected is, appropriately, not just circular, in which the concerns of the end wrap back around to embrace the beginning in ouroboros-like fashion, but web-like, in which the connections are of all to all, in which no piece can really be excised from the whole without its entire logic crumbling. It is built of ephemera, but ephemera that are finally so densely interconnected as to become everything.

This network of references allows Shaviro to introduce insights from a most unlikely conglomeration of sources -- science fiction novels, unsurprisingly, and critical theory as well, but also a wide range of technical, political, and economic texts, movies, music videos, advertisements, and other bits of popular culture -- each of which is mobilized less as evidence of Shaviro's argument than as a theoretical supposition that must be worked through: if the contemporary world is represented this way, what must that world mean? Along the way, there are swarms and hives, zombies and vampires, viruses and memes, surveillance and control, sampling and copyright, corporations and activists, body and soul, cyborgs and artificial intelligences, exhibitionists and recluses, LSD and cocaine, and more, and more, and more. And each of these figures connects, in the end, to each other, forming, of course, another network, in which the inescapability of the network's grasp becomes manifest, and in which the only sense that the world can make today is the sense of the network.

The question that this begins to raise is whether Shaviro's decision to publish Connected as a print-based book, one that requires that the web of his ideas be, to some extext, linearized, was simply the default position of an academic working in today's institutional environment, or an intentional strategy for de-networking the discourse of the network. Am I only proving his point about the network's rapacity by wondering whether the text might be more productively engaged if its form were literally as networked as its content?

The network is, as Shaviro's excellent analysis demonstrates, a powerful technology of control, but such is of course arguable of many technologies, including the book, a technology that has for centuries controlled the shape and the distribution of academic discourse. The editorial board of any university press, of course, serves as a mechanism of manifest control, a gatekeeping body that determines what can and cannot be published. But there is also a mode of more systemic control over academic discourse that is enforced by the book, as its very structures restrict the kinds of discourse that can take place under its imprimatur. The book's discourse is, of course, always a one-directional flow from author to reader (a flow that is complicated but not interrupted by reviews such as this); the book is static; the book is uniform; the book remains unchanged by its interactions with other scholars, at least until the second edition.

While it is possible to make too much of the ways that networked text evades such authorial control, it's important to note the ways that the network does invite the reader into a more active participation, both in the process of reading and in the process of responding. And thus while there are a slew of rich-media benefits to be drawn from publishing a text like Connected in a networked environment -- such as making the multiple links among its chunks manifest, including not simply the linear one-theme-to-the-next kind of connections that already exist between contiguous sections, but links that currently form only as the reader builds them, between sections many pages apart -- even more significant is the sense in which the reader's experience of the content that forms around those connections might have been individually generated. If the text were published through a database engine of the sort that supports blogging, for instance, and if each chunk were not just titled but tagged, a reader might be able to bring together all of the widely dispersed sections of the text that mention William S. Burroughs, for instance, or genetics, or the free market. Perhaps most importantly, however, the reader could not only follow the links and tags she's most interested in, but she could respond in kind, tagging passages in ways that both demonstrate her own understanding of the text and create further links among the text's nodes, and commenting on passages in ways that place her own writing into the same network of discourse as that which she reads.

In reading a book like Connected, then, we can begin to recognize the ironies of contemporary academic interactions with the network society; as critical as we should be of many of the trends in contemporary technoculture, moving academic discourse more fully into an encounter with the network may entail not a falling-into network control, but a giving-up of older modes of control already in place, in particular authorial and institutional control over the text and its reception. But the benefits, for readers and writers alike, are powerful: the text need no longer be static, our experience of it need not be uniform, and the relationship between author and reader can produce a multi-dimensional flow of ideas that can enrich and deepen academic discourse. The difference between this perhaps overly-optimistic view of what is possible within the network and Shaviro's slightly more pessimistic view may be that between a network in which we merely participate in as consumers, one in which we must work diligently to filter the constant barrage of information in order to see past its ideological content, and a network that we in fact create, one in which our critical discussions can flourish by virtue of their radical interconnectedness. Such interconnectedness, turned to our own uses, may allow us not to discover but to determine what it means to live in the network society.

[*] I am indebted to Rick Blackwood for a series of conversations that resulted in a number of the key thoughts contained in this review. Any flaws in their execution, however, are solely attributable to the author.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick:
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Associate Professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, where she is also a member of the extended faculties in Cultural Studies and Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University. Her book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, will be released this spring by Vanderbilt University Press. She is currently working with The Institute for the Future of the Book to found a new, all-electronic scholarly press focused on media studies.  <kfitzpatrick@dci.pomona.edu>

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