I’m very happy to take suggestions and feedback on this course proposal as it is very much a work in progress! If anyone has experience teaching a similar course, I’d be curious to hear how it went. I’m envisioning here five units of 2-3 weeks each, depending on the length of the semester, so certain units could be expanded to include more critical theories of social media and knowledge work as well as digital humanities.
Social Media and Contemporary Literature
Social media is the first “new media” to imagine not merely new forms of representation but also new forms of sociality—reworked relations between producer and consumer, individual and community, self and other. As a result, modern literature’s central thematics of alienation and commodification have been reinvigorated in social media’s wake. Literary realism now approaches science fiction in its response to the culture of new technologies, and has thus reenergized a variety of genres and subgenres, including experimental and confessional forms. Contemporary authors from Margaret Atwood to Salman Rushdie have adopted blogging and microblogging platforms, the new technologies of cultural capital, in order to shore up access to global circuits of literary culture.
This course provides an opportunity to take up the challenges and possibilities posed by social media for contemporary literature. We will pay careful attention to new concepts of intellectual property and immaterial labor inasmuch as these pose challenges to the analysis of the “author” or “work” of literature. We will read literary works by established authors from Zadie Smith to Tom McCarthy, as well as emerging voices. In addition, we will examine the theory and practice of blogging and microblogging in the context of world literature: is it possible to do a “close reading” of Margaret Atwood’s tweets? How do we conceptualize the author’s “archive” and “oeuvre” at a moment of intensified archive fever? Finally, we will pay careful attention to the forms of literary expression that have emerged on and are unique to social media platforms themselves such as literary blogs and Twitter poetry.
These texts allow us to interrogate how real-time technologies of aggregation and curation have created new possibilities and forms for literary culture. At the same time, they demonstrate how the resources of literary writing can be of use in exploring the conditions of social life and cultural production after social media.
- William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
- Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
- Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
- Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
- Tom McCarthy, C
- Ellen Kennedy, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs
Unit 1: New Realisms
It is perhaps no coincidence that the contemporary novel has turned towards realist styles at precisely the moment when social media has opened up new forms of sociality for the novel to investigate. We begin the course with a unit on the new realisms that have emerged in the novel of the 2000s by way of selections from Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, with their respective treatments of the MP3 revolution. Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel” and review of The Social Network will ground our discussion of the novel’s possibilities and limitations after social media.
Unit 2: Science Fiction and the Culture of Cool
Science fiction has long been the genre entrusted with the task of responding to and envisioning changes in the culture of technology. J.G. Ballard’s work provides an introduction to major themes of social media including microcelebrity, media saturation, and the waning of affect. We begin the unit with Ballard’s short story “Intensive Care Unit,” which imagines a family that only meets through video connection. We then read two science fiction novels that explicitly take up social media as a theme: William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, depicting the culture of “cool hunting” and viral video in the aftermath of 9/11, as well as Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland, set in a futuristic South Africa. These speculative depictions of social media may be read in conjunction with theories of knowledge work and immaterial labor, such as selections from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude.
Unit 3: Literary Remix
Remix—as collage, pastiche or cut-up—has been a technique of literary writing at least since modernism. William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, pioneered with Brion Gysin, provides an introduction to our study of literary remix, with selections from Burroughs’s The Soft Machine and Burroughs and Gysin’s The Cut-Cups. We then read Tom McCarthy’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Remix” in order to raise questions about literary remix in the contemporary cultural economy. McCarthy’s novel, C, also treats viral media by way of its depiction of the amateur radio at the turn of the 20th century. These texts, in conjunction with selections from critical work on remix and intellectual property such as by Lawrence Lessig, help us to understand the challenges that literary remix poses to our concepts of the “author” and “work” of literature.
Unit 4: Writer as Inventor
Here, we considering the changing role of the writer in relation to new technologies of cultural capital by focusing on an exciting output of literary works from self-described “media inventor” Robin Sloan, including his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, short stories “Annabel Scheme” and “Last Beautiful,” along with creative apps for smart phone and tablet, such as “Fish.” We then examine the use of blogging and microblogging platforms by “global” authors such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and others to shore up cultural capital in global circuits of literary production, consumption and distribution. Readings will include Margaret Atwood’s “How I learned to Love Twitter” along with Wai Chee Dimock’s PMLA article, “World Literature on Facebook.”
Unit 5: Self-Fashioning and Literary Blogs
Self-fashioning has constituted a significant function of literary writing, from the sonnet writing of Renaissance courtiers to Romantic and modernist conceptions of genius and contemporary literary celebrity. This unit examines practices of literary self-fashioning in relation to the renegotiated boundaries between private and public on social media platforms, particularly literary blogs. We begin with one of the first novels to take up explicitly themes of social media, Gary Shteyngart’s, Super Sad True Love Story. We then analyze the new confessional genres that have emerged on literary blogs through signature works such as Ellen Kennedy’s book of poetry Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs and Marie Calloway’s short stories “Adrian Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” Finally, an analysis of Twitter poetry such as, among others, by Patricia Lockwood (Twitter’s so-called “poet laureate”), raises digital humanities question regarding distant reading, data mining and digital archiving of electronic texts.
Michelle Lhooq on the Creators Project:
Using Unicode characters, Glitchr tinkers with back-end coding to turn his profile page into an interactive minefield: clicking on certain links results in a series of unexpected glitches. Facebook’s clean lines explode into disconcerting chaos without warning.
Over the last year or so I’ve been collecting Youtube adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s short plays on my Beckett on Youtube tumblr. I tried to make a foray into addressing some of the issues raised by these adaptations in my article “Transmedia Beckett: Come and Go and the Social Media Archive,” forthcoming in Adaptation. I’m happy to say that the article is now available through advance access on the Oxford Journals site.*
Since writing the article I’ve been thinking more and more about Beckett’s late plays as offering a kind of social media survival kit– reassessing our ideas about memory, storage, repetition and identity in a condition of extreme mediation. (Beckett’s plays themselves resemble elaborate instruction manuals more than traditional theater.) In future entries on this blog I would like to explore in more detail what Beckett has to offer us re: contemporary social media aesthetics.
In the meantime, here is my article abstract:
Beckett’s late works for film, theatre, and television approach the condition of installation pieces, minimalistic and iterative texts that resemble instruction manuals more than theatre. At the same time, these works are preoccupied with archival themes: personal and public memory, history, documents and their technical media. While his works interrogate the condition of archives, Beckett’s own archive is characterized by the increasing visibility in Beckett’s later texts of elaborate instructions, maps, and charts, as in the diagrams that fill the text of Quad. Yet, Beckett’s authorial control over his works became known for its insistence on media specificity, the reluctance to translate a work from one medium to another. Beckett’s “extraliterary” texts (as Gontarski and Chris Ackerly have described them) strive to become their own archive, not as a definitive version recorded in film or technical media, but as sets of instructions to be repeated, and thus capable of producing their own series of iterations. These iterations, in fact, characterize contemporary media archives, as they become organized according to the modular logic of a database over and against the temporal logic of the traditional archive. This essay conceptualizes the archive of Beckett’s works in a transmedia context in which concepts of “work” and “author” no longer function to authorize discrete versions of Beckett’s extraliterary texts.
*This site has a paywall unfortunately, but feel free to contact me for a copy.