Labyrinth vs. Network; or, Why Modernism Is Not Google

I find a lot to criticize and very little, almost nothing, to like in the Tom McCarthy essay that is making the rounds, but I will confine myself to one point:

It is not just that people with degrees in English generally go to work for corporations (which of course they do); the point is that the company, in its most cutting-edge incarnation, has become the arena in which narratives and fictions, metaphors and metonymies and symbol networks at their most dynamic and incisive are being generated, worked through and transformed. While “official” fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens, or supposed tales of the contemporary rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of unexamined realism, it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to be performing writers’ essential task of working through the fragmentations of old orders of experience and representation, and coming up with radical new forms to chart and manage new, emergent ones. If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google, and if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it.

Now McCarthy’s is a standard argument of artists who identify with the avant-garde, which was among other things a historical project to end the putatively bourgeois separation of art from life by disseminating art as the very stuff of (social) life. A kind of Jacobin aestheticism in in its most utopian manifestations, the avant-garde would coat society in its own limit-works, embedding the citizen-spectator in an empoweringly intellectualized surround of apophatic surfaces at the junction of formalism and communism. Whatever one thinks of this plan, it would obviously take a high level of organization to achieve, hence the importance of political forms like the collective and the manifesto for the avant-garde. And obviously, corporations, like governments before them, have proved better able to aestheticize the social than mere artists have, which is why from time to time artists enjoined their colleagues to imitate the corporation. I first encountered all these ideas in the comics of Grant Morrison, which were full of allusions to Dada, Futurism, Situationism, absurdism, et al. For his recommendation to artists to mimic corporate strategies by creating icons and brands with the same social reach but with a subversive effect, see Morrison’s cult-classic Disinfo 2000 speech, which is the far more fun version of McCarthy’s argument.

McCarthy is a dissident who, as public schoolboy and Oxford alum, lacks even Morrison’s (or Joyce’s) outsider status to lend his social critique of the establishment some grit and authenticity. I do not generally care about such identity politics, but McCarthy’s false position manifests itself in his argument—as a misplaced envy for the class that has supposedly supplanted his own as agent of culture. For one thing, note the shell game he plays with the word “official.” He asserts that corporations provide more exciting and original narratives than “official” literary culture does. But anyone who has ever tried to publish anything even a bit beyond the norm in the present era, when all literature aspires to the condition of children’s books, knows very well that the corporate character of publishing is precisely what renders mainstream fiction today as insipid and predictable as it is. Surely, McCarthy knows this: he famously published his first novel with a small art press because no bigger places would take it. But here McCarthy relies on a connotation of the word “official” that comes from the age of social democracy and its soixante-huitard critique, when the state was the agent of boring administration. But right now the corporate is the official.

Next we should ask if the culture of corporate capitalism really is all that exciting. Is McCarthy really so enamored of Google, for instance? In a literary sense, Google has imposed a useful limit by devaluing mere information, as in Steve Donoghue’s mockery of David Foster Wallace for trying to impress readers with a list of obscure vegetation that anyone with an Internet connection could turn up. But is Google exciting as such? I think the world after Google is less exciting. Per the avant-garde, the Google world is more centralized and more organized, but this has narrowed rather than extended our mental horizon. Everything from Buddhism to sting theory to fetish pornography is ho-hum, one search away, leveled into just more data in the stream. I suppose it is a “radical new form,” but it has contributed to the lowest-common-denominator banality that also afflicts mainstream literary fiction. There is a point at which democracy goes so far left that it comes out on the right: the decay of democracy into tyranny. This is essentially what the Internet at large represents. When everything becomes the possession of everybody, nobody really has anything anymore, and the citizen becomes a subject again. I grant I haven’t read Tristes Tropiques, but I still reserve the right to recommend that McCarthy read Dialectic of Enlightenment!

Finally, James Joyce. I see no reason why, on McCarthy’s theory, he doesn’t think Joyce or a Joyce-like genius should have been working back in the 1910s and 1920s for Henry Ford. After all, the corporate restructuring of the lifeworld began a hundred years ago, back when Lenin, anticipating McCarthy but with a non-nihilist difference, praised imperialism as the highest form of capitalism, integrating society in forms that communism could appropriate.* But James Joyce chose a different kind of life and a different mode of expression. His work is the opposite of Google. It mocks all attempts to master information, imbues every textual element with the possibility of irony, and (simultaneously, paradoxically, necessarily) adverts always to the potential for higher meaning. Joyce’s work retains the promise of revelation, without which an abundance of signs becomes tedious. Modernism made labyrinths, not networks. Networks, flat and coercively immanent, are finally without aesthetic interest, because they represent the merely given, and great writing does not accept the merely given, does not, in McCarthy’s phrase, observe and report.** Joyce saw himself as Dante’s successor, and Dante recreated the universe as an order of significance, not as an aleatory network. That is what literature is. The avant-garde was always something else, and McCarthy—formed by traditional elites, published and praised by the official culture he disdains, and patently envious of the new elites far more than he is enamored of literature—reminds me of why I never trusted them in the first place.

*See here: “When a big enterprise assumes gigantic proportions, and, on the basis of an exact computation of mass data, organises according to plan the supply of primary raw materials to the extent of two-thirds, or three-fourths, of all that is necessary for tens of millions of people; when the raw materials are transported in a systematic and organised manner to the most suitable places of production, sometimes situated hundreds or thousands of miles from each other; when a single centre directs all the consecutive stages of processing the material right up to the manufacture of numerous varieties of finished articles; when these products are distributed according to a single plan among tens and hundreds of millions of consumers (the marketing of oil in America and Germany by the American oil trust)—then it becomes evident that we have socialisation of production…”

I am not a Leninist, though I prefer Leninism to Tom-McCarthyism on at-least-it’s-an-ethos grounds. Literature as the creation of non-absolute significance against the plans of rationalizers, which I take to be Joyce’s aesthetic, is described in explicitly anti-Leninist terms by Gary Saul Morson in this compelling essay on Stephen Toulmin.

**The clickbait headline, like the one at the head of McCarthy’s article, is an index of how boring the network can be.