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
Steven Shaviro is probably an excellent teacher. He obviously reads widely and critically examines how theoretical work can find meaning in everyday life. His book, Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society, reads like a very interesting, extended lecture. There are no chapters in the book, and the references to science fiction, futuristic film, and popular culture serve as examples and illustrations of some of the typical criticisms of contemporary culture: the growth of corporate dominance in media, privacy, transparency, time, space -- the usual litany of the cultural historian. His thought progresses with the aid of many sub-heads, which, when put together make a strong outline for his ideas that migrate through a labyrinth of literature, with references to a range of cultural theorists and cultural artifacts. His working metaphor seems to be that film, life, fiction, and reality all blend together in a seamless monolog of connections (get it?).
Like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof might say, on the one hand, this writing style is effective in leading the reader toward making sense of contemporary culture as reflected in film and popular culture. But on the other hand, this style sometimes leads the reader toward absorbing a number of small ideas, without really understanding if there is one larger, master plan to the book. If a reader is familiar with the films, music, and art discussed, the package of cultural texts and written text can be very powerful. Reading the book can then be as rewarding as discussing the popular arts and society with a knowledgeable friend. But if you aren't sure of some of the popular references, the author's arguments and explanations lose some of their power.
Shaviro is a professor of film studies and English, so it comes as no surprise that he draws from authors representing a wide range of intellectual traditions. He deftly shifts from Mick Jagger, Guy Debord, and Andy Warhol to discuss the society of the spectacle in one section, only to shift to J.G. Ballard and Fredric Jameson in the next paragraph. He gives as much credence to Andrew Sullivan as he does to Joseph Shumpeter. Apparently, he assumes the reader is familiar with all of the authors he cites, and he cites many, but he occasionally misses the opportunity to solidify their similarities, or comment on how their works contribute to a unified position on an aspect of postmodernity. The book then, seems more suited to someone with as broad a range of cultural experiences as the author. It might well be suited to graduate-level instruction, or as a supplement to upper-division courses in popular culture in which the students are expected to do the leg-work of tracking down original popular culture works to understand the allusions.
The book does work effectively at bringing together a range of ideas and illustrations that could be an excellent starting point for a course on utopian vision in the arts. While reading it, I kept wishing that an accompanying DVD would be sold too, to complete the entire package of lecture, along with audio and video examples. The examples drawn from science fiction and futuristic film are the most compelling because they so clearly reference cultural realities of the era in which the films were made. As Shaviro's filmography indicates, these examples are drawn from films as early as Warhol's 1964 film, Empire, to the 1999 releases of Cunningham and Bjork's DVD, All Is Full of Love, and the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix.
But though the author expects the reader to share in the range and depth of his cultural literacy, there are moments in which his references to some of his literary heroes seem somewhat strained. Many of the sections suffer from name or idea dropping, with too little exploration to tease out their meanings, or to guide the reader to understanding the points outlined in the sub-headings. For example, it probably could be effectively argued that Friedrich Nietzsche and William S. Burroughs had similar viewpoints on debt and death, but Shaviro attempts to reconcile their works in one long paragraph, along with interpretations of "moral obligation" and "capital punishment" equated with Burrough's statement about a modern novelist who "attempts to write his way out of death." There is probably a very interesting discourse to suggest in this juxtaposition of writers' views -- but the ideas are far too rich to be given such short attention.
Shaviro is most entertaining and enlightening when he, himself, serves as one of the points of "connection" in the text. His own thoughts about how he used Napster and the cultural production of pop music along with the temporality of ownership in the MP3 era is extremely well written and an excellent commentary on the transitory nature of ownership and cultural control of production. He has an interesting viewpoint about how science fiction can be used as social theory, and when he uses his theoretical background most effectively, he has interesting commentary on what constitutes cyberspace, the virtual world, and the role of the human imagination in a world of simulacrum.
His own cultural critique reflects his positions on a range of subjects from the ordinariness of JenniCam on the web, to the provocative physical and perceptual manipulations of Diane Gromala's installation piece, Dancing with the Virtual Dervish. Unlike many cultural critics, Shaviro does not dwell on what could have been, or the futility of even trying to be creative under contemporary economic and social structures. He is clear about the reality of contemporary life that exacts a price for living in a society in which there is so much access to so many different forms of altered reality, and he interprets this as both a monetary price, as well as an "informational price" which results in the traditional cultural critic's view of never completely satisfying the user. But for Shaviro, science fiction is the harbinger of what could happen as well as the translator for the world that we invent.
There are many times when the reader may not agree with Shaviro -- but this is, again, one of the strengths of the book, and why, as an excellent teacher, he does not attempt to subject his students (or readers) to only one version of reality or the way popular culture presents any standard position of what constitutes reality. And while the book is very ambitious and attempts to cover a lot of territory, there are moments that will serve to stimulate readers from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.
Connected is clearly intended to be a non-traditional book. As such, the act of reading it also calls for the reader to abandon any pre-conceived ideas about reading. In those moments in which the reader with a background in cultural theory or in any one of the arts finds a moment of connection with the text, it will be impossible to put the book down. At times, the reader may become frustrated with the superficiality of references to the works of other cultural critics, and will want to stop for awhile, to let the thoughts catch up with the reader's own interpretations. In either case, exploring this book can be a rewarding experience. Like any good teacher, Steven Shaviro opens your eyes, and allows you to think for yourself.
Jarice Hanson is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and currently holds the Verizon Chair in Telecommunications at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Her research focuses on telecommunications policy and changing social values. She is currently working on a book for Praeger Publishers, titled 24/7: How the Internet and Cell Phones Change the Way We Live, Work and Play. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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