The death of writing? Not again

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Can we declare a moratorium on essays about the death of writing?

I think we need a moratorium on essays about the death of literature. Especially when they are by people who write for a living. The latest is novelist Tom McCarthy (“C,” “Satin Island”), whose Guardian piece, “The Death of Writing — If James Joyce Were Alive Today He’d Be Working For Google,” briefly lighted up my Twitter feed Saturday morning, before being displaced by the president’s moving speech from Selma.

McCarthy’s essay, actually, does not claim Joyce would work for Google, but in an era of clickbait, what are we to do? His assertion is far more nuanced: “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.”

And yet, I don’t believe it, not for an instant, for if Joyce stood for something, anything, it was the iconoclastic status of the writer. This is the figure McCarthy invokes with his opening riff on Claude Lévi-Strauss and Stéphane Mallarmé, the writer as anthropologist, as organizer of information, in a culture based on the need, or desire, to “write everything down.”

The problem, McCarthy continues, is that in an age defined by data, literature has ceded narrative to the corporation; “the company,” he writes, “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.”

Sound familiar? It’s the same sort of argument Marshall McLuhan was making about the transformative force of media half a century ago, and if both he and McCarthy are right in their own ways, they are not, cannot be, right enough.

In McCarthy’s case, the issue is his insistence that “[t]he rise of corporate capitalism, and the astonishing, almost exponential rate of its recent acceleration … present a huge challenge to the writer, forcing him or her to rethink their whole role and function, to remap their entire universe. There is no space outside this matrix, no virgin territory of pure ‘aesthetics’ or neutral ‘reflection’ on which it hasn’t impacted.”

That this is the case (of course) should without saying, but it is also almost entirely beside the point.

Why, after all, do writers write? What is the impulse, the insistence on story, on seeing and representing the world? It has little to do with technology although everything to do with narrative, which is a purpose that, on the surface, technology also seems to share. The difference is that the writer creates narrative with intention, whereas technology merely gathers, or processes, information, leaving interpretation, analysis, up to us.

“Walk down any stretch of street,” McCarthy writes, “and you’re being filmed by three cameras at once — and the phone you carry in your pocket is pinpointing and logging your location at each given moment. Every website that you visit, each keystroke and click-through are archived: even if you’ve hit delete or empty trash it’s still there, lodged within some data fold or enclave, some occluded-yet-retrievable avenue of circuitry.”

All this is true, and yet, so what? I’m reminded of Wittgenstein, who once declared, “If all possible scientific questions are answered, our problem is still not touched at all.” Something similar might be said about the ubiquity of data: It doesn’t address the problem of humanity at the core.

This is what literature does, what narrative offers, a way to consider the essential human dilemmas, the ones that never change. It’s why a book such as, say, “The Confessions of St. Augustine” (or, for that matter, “Ulysses”) continues to resonate — not because what it describes is so different from our experience of living, but because it is essentially the same.

Indeed, in this moment of big data, of electronic surveillance, of society as, in McCarthy’s word, “scriptorum,” that is the key responsibility of the writer: to stand up for the human, to evoke the interiority, psychological or emotional, that cannot be tracked by a machine.

Such interiority, McCarthy tells us, citing Michel de Certeau, becomes “obscene” — not in the sense of prurience, but rather because it inserts bits and pieces of the subjective, the personal (memories, traces, impressions, “half-forgotten legends that have not yet been decoded”) into the broader narrative.

This is the transgressive power of art, of literature, to subvert the conventional, to alter the conversation, even (or especially) when that conversation seems so “omnipresent and omniscient” that we lose sight of it as a construction, “a technologically underwritten capitalism that both writes and reads itself.”

Obscenity as wild card, as human element, obscenity as a kind of collective soul. I like the idea, and even more, I believe in it — not as a signifier of the death of writing, but rather of its necessary, messy and insistent life.

Twitter: @davidulin

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